Interview With Marine Franck

As part of our curated collection on Climate Change Transformations, we discussed some concerns with Marine Franck [MF], Climate Change Officer for UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency). Below is a transcript of our central questions and her answers.

What are some ways climate change generates new formulations of nature, society, or humanity in your research and/or your discipline?

MF: Disasters linked to natural hazards, such as earthquakes, tropical storms, drought, tsunamis, flooding, glacial lake outburst floods, and landslides, including the adverse impacts of climate change, are drivers of contemporary displacement. The fifth report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change[1] projects that the effects of climate change will increase the displacement of people. In addition, populations lacking the resources for voluntary migration are often more exposed to extreme weather events, particularly in low-income developing countries.

Between 2008 and 2015 more than 203.4 million people were displaced by disasters.[2] The likelihood of being displaced by disasters has doubled since the 1970s. Looking to the future, there is high agreement among scientists that disasters are expected to become more frequent and more severe. Climate change, in combination with other factors, is projected to contribute to increased displacement.

Climate change and disasters can no longer be considered solely environmental issues. They comprise a “mega-trend” that changes the nature of displacement, with impacts on traditional humanitarian approaches.

Environmental degradation can fuel social tension and, in some cases, conflict, which in turn, can give rise to flows of refugees and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). Even where the cause of displacement—whether internal or cross-border—is primarily environmental, the affected populations may have protection needs and vulnerabilities similar to those whose flight is provoked by violence or human rights abuses.

A 2009 United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) study suggested that between 1990 and 2009, there had been at least 18 violent conflicts fuelled by natural resources exploitation and that natural resources-related conflicts experienced an earlier and higher probability of relapse than others.[3] In 2013, Stanford researchers Sol Hsiang and Marshall Burke conducted a meta analysis of 50 studies on conflict and climate change and found that higher temperatures and extreme precipitation tend to correlate with greater incidence of conflict.[4] According to Hsiang, most conflicts have roots in interpersonal and intergroup relations, but climate is one of the critical factors that affect how things escalate to the point of violence. Climate change acts as a “threat multiplier.”

Climate change exacerbates competition over scarce resources such as water, food, energy and acts as an accelerator of armed conflict, which may result in displacement. The combination of drought and famine in the Horn of Africa in 2011 and 2012 led to a massive influx of Somalis into Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camp.

The IPCC gathers thousands of scientists from all over the world and provides a clear and up-to-date view of the current state of scientific knowledge relevant to climate change. For the first time, in its fifth assessment report in 2014, IPCC Working Group II, which considers the vulnerability and exposure of human and natural systems, explicitly recognized that “climate change over the 21st Century is projected to increase displacement of people” and “can indirectly increase risks of violent conflicts in the form of civil war and inter-group violence by amplifying well-documented drivers of these conflicts such as poverty and economic shocks”.[5]

In your work, how does climate change (or carbon defined broadly) become a legal or policy problem, and what larger transformations does this cause? How do the specific ways law or policy render climate change (or carbon) a problem pose challenges for political intervention or attempts at cross-disciplinary academic inquiry?

MF: The vast majority of displacement associated with disasters takes place in low and lower-middle income economies.[6] These countries have relatively little capacity to meet the protection and assistance needs of IDPs or to invest in climate adaptation and disaster risk reduction measures that would either prevent displacement or mitigate the impacts of disasters.

People who are displaced within their countries are legally protected by national laws, international humanitarian and human rights law, as reflected in the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement and, in the case of Africa, by the African Union Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa (the Kampala Convention) that specifically addresses internal displacement caused by natural disasters. Internally displaced persons – whether they return to their homes, settle elsewhere in the country, or try to integrate locally where they are displaced – usually face continuing problems and risks, and require support beyond the acute crisis period of a disaster.

Achieving a solution is therefore a gradual and complex process requiring timely and coordinated efforts to address humanitarian, development and human rights concerns, including measures to prepare for or prevent further displacement. Under the arrangements for IDPs, UNHCR is the Global Protection Cluster lead. However, at the country level, in disaster situations or complex emergencies without significant displacement, the three protection-mandated agencies (UNHCR, UNICEF and OHCHR) will consult closely under the leadership of the Humanitarian Coordinator/Resident Coordinator and agree which agency among the three intervene depending on specific contexts. Since the 2000s UNHCR offers assistance on an ad-hoc basis to peoples displaced internally by natural disasters.

Provision of assistance and protection for IDPs in the context of disasters is still unpredictable and delivered on an ad hoc basis, subjected to the consent of the Government concerned and established operational presence. Its involvement also relies on an invitation from the disaster-affected country, and the Emergency Relief Coordination, on the basis that no other agency has the capacity to lead.

People who are internally displaced in the context of climate change and disasters are in need of timely assistance and protection alongside durable solutions. There is scope for addressing internal displacement related to climate change within existing structures, but that would require developing the office’s ability to rapidly respond to humanitarian emergencies to ensure disaster induced IDPs are consistently assisted and protected.

While the vast majority of people displaced in this disasters and climate change contexts are internally displaced, in some cases, they may cross borders. In this situation, they are not normally considered refugees under the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees. The 1951 Convention describes a “well-founded fear of persecution” based on five grounds: race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group and political opinion.

There is a legal gap to assist and protect people who cross borders in the context of disasters and climate change. In the Pacific Islands, where climate change is having some of the most dramatic effects on low-lying islands, one Kiribati man has even claimed refugee status based on climate change, which was not granted by the courts in New Zealand.

Rather than calling for a new binding international convention on cross-border disaster-displacement, it is relevant to support an approach that focuses on the integration of effective practices by States and (sub-) regional organizations into their own normative frameworks and practices in accordance with their specific situations and challenges. The Nansen Initiative (2012-2015), a State-led, bottom-up consultative process was intended to build consensus on key principles and elements to address the protection and assistance needs of persons displaced across borders in the context of disasters, including the adverse effects of climate change. A key outcome of this process is the Agenda for the Protection of Cross-Border Displaced Persons in the Context of Disasters and Climate Change (Protection Agenda). The Protection Agenda consolidates a broad set of effective practices and policy options that can be used by States and others to reduce and manage disaster displacement, and to better protect and assist disaster displaced persons.

To follow up on the Nansen Initiative, a Platform on Disaster Displacement was launched at the World Humanitarian Summit on 23 May 2016 and started its work on 1 July 2016 with the objective to implement the recommendations of the Protection Agenda to better prevent an prepare for displacement and to respond to situations when people are forced to flee across a border. The new Platform will build partnerships between policymakers, practitioners and researchers and constitute a multi-stakeholder forum for dialogue, information sharing as well as policy and normative development.


[1] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Climate Change 2014 Synthesis Report: Summary for Policymakers, 2014, available at


[3] UNEP, From Conflict to Peacebuilding: The Role of Natural Resources and the Environment, 2009, p. 5, cited in United Nations, The Challenge of Sustaining Peace, Report of the Advisory Group of Experts for the 2015 review of the United Nations peacebuilding architecture, 29 June 2015, p. 15, available at






Marine Franck is Climate Change Officer at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. She works in climate change policy and currently manages the project, “Climate Change and Displacement: Building an Evidence base and Equipping States with Tools and Guidance for Action,” financed by the European Union.


Recommended Citation

Franck, Marine, Nathan Thomas Coben, and Kosi Onyeneho. Interview with Marine Franck. PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review Online, 08 September 2016,