Written by Anna McCord,  Climate Technical Lead (STAAR), Climate Change and Social Protection Research Initiative (CCASP) Lead, and Senior Research Associate (ODI)


The impacts of climate change, pollution, and biodiversity loss – the unholy trinity that the UN is now characterising as the ‘triple planetary crisis’ (UNCC, 2022) – have accelerated over recent years and months. As I write, excessive heat, flooding, mudslides and water salination are all hitting the headlines around the world.  These impacts are in line with what has been anticipated by climate scientists and set out in the most recent IPCC report (IPCC, 2022). And these challenges are set to increase significantly in the coming years, creating a whole new set of issues for those of us working in social protection to navigate. 


We can expect major shifts in the scale of poverty and physical locations of needs including increases in internal displacement and cross-border movement…

This will throw up many challenges for us in terms of how we think about, govern, design, and deliver social protection in the future (see Costella and McCord, 2023). The International Organization for Migration (IOM) has described climate migrants as invisible in the migration and climate discussions. There is some debate about whether it is useful to establish a climate-specific legal status for climate refugees (parallel to that of existing refugees) or whether this group should be referred to and treated as climate migrants.  Currently, the terms environmental migrants, climate refugees and climate migrants have no formal legal meaning.

The UN created a post of UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of climate change in 2021 to consider a range of questions, including these.  The first incumbent, scoped out key challenges relating to the question of how to protect human rights in the context of climate change and exploring options for protecting those displaced across international borders. And the recently appointed Rapporteur, Elisa Morgera, will be taking forward debate on these issues in the coming months and years. In time, the outcome of this particular debate will be key for the governance of the issue.


Climate, pollution and biodiversity challenges are likely to exacerbate other drivers of human movement…

Those moving in response to climate shocks and disasters tend to return to their homes, but climate stressors are increasingly important drivers of long-term migration and displacement (MPI, 2023).  And new migration corridors are opening up as communities, facing challenges such as sea level rise and desertification, reach the limits of adaptation. In 2021, the World Bank estimated that without a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, there would be some 216 million climate migrants within their own countries by 2050, and  African Climate Mobility Initiatives estimated that 113 million would be in Africa alone.


So, what does all this mean for social protection?

There are two main areas to look at:

1. Ensuring adequate social protection for those displaced

Needs include, at a minimum, basic income replacement to compensate for lost livelihoods and employment. And beyond this, the wider set of social protection provision set out in the social protection floor. This is not an easy ask when existing levels of social protection coverage are so low. Particularly in the regions worst affected by climate change – South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. 

Moreover, we need to think about the issue of cross-border displacement. Important questions include:

  • What can we learn from innovative attempts to promote bilateral or multilateral social security agreements, and arrangements for the portability of social protection entitlements?
  • Beyond this, how can the right to social assistance [1] be realised for all those crossing borders, and who should be responsible for provision, financing, and delivery?
  • What if receiving countries are themselves resource-constrained and lack adequate social protection systems? In these cases the potential to extend provisions to accommodate these additional climate-driven populations will be limited. 
  • In this context, we are already seeing a humanitarian system experiencing significant financing shortfalls – do we expect this system take on this significant additional challenge?
  • How do we differentiate between humanitarian and social protection caseloads in this context? And will such a differentiation even be useful in the future?
  • Do we need new international governance structures, mandates, rights, and duty-bearers to accommodate these populations? 
  • How do we link this into the questions of a just transition, and an equitable allocation of financing responsibilities, in the context of new climate financing instruments?

2. Rethinking current programming norms – which may not be well-aligned with the challenges of climate change

Some of the best large-scale social protection programmes currently providing income replacement such as Ethiopia’s Productive Safety Net Programme (PSNP) and India’s Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) are linked to domicile, so even internal movement may risk reducing eligibility.  Furthermore, some programmes currently aiming to promote adaptation, for example where transfers are linked to a range of complementary developmental inputs, may bump into hard limits with changes in rainfall patterns, saline intrusion, sea level rise and temperature increases,  rendering ongoing livelihoods and even year-round habitation challenging in some areas.  So, we may need to rethink the kinds of instruments we are selecting and how we design them.  Can we be sure that existing interventions are not sometimes inadvertently promoting maladaptation, and how can we design programmes to accommodate and potentially even facilitate effective migration?


There are no easy answers, but we must prioritise these challenges…

We don’t yet have clear and agreed legal definitions of those displaced internally or across borders due to the planetary crisis. Nor do we have agreement on how the rights of these people to social security will be met in the future. Now is the time for us, as a community, to grapple with these issues so that we can adequately prepare for the challenges ahead.


[1] The right to social security is enshrined in a number of international human rights law instruments: Universal Declaration of Human Rights articles 22, 25; International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights articles 9, 10, 11; Convention on the Rights of the Child article 26; International Labour Organisation Social Protection Floors Recommendation, No. 202, and regional human rights instruments.


This blog is written by Anna McCord, Climate Lead for STAAR, and ODI Senior Research Associate.  It is written in her personal capacity and takes as its starting point a report by Cecilia Costella and Anna McCord published in 2023 on the implications of climate change for future social protection needs ‘Rethinking Social Protection and Climate Change’ and recent research work by the Climate Change and Social Protection Research Initiative (CCASP) which is currently being taken forward by Anna McCord and Sayanti Sengupta.



United Nations Climate Change (n.d.). What is the Triple Planetary Crisis? UNFCCC

IPCC. (2022). Working Group II Assessment Report VI: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability.

Ionesco, D. (n.d.). Let’s talk about climate migrants, not climate refugees, OIM Oficina Regional para Centroamérica, Norteamérica y el Caribe.

Costella, C. and McCord, A. (2023). Rethinking Social Protection and Climate Change - Implications of climate change for social protection policy and programming in the Asia-Pacific region. DFAT.

Africa Climate Mobility Initiative. (n.d.). A Mobile Future: Climate Mobility Is on the Rise. 

Huang, L.H.L. (2023). Climate migration 101: An Explainer. Migration Policy Institure, MPI.

Clement, V., Rigaud, K. K., De Sherbinin, A., Jones, B., Adamo, S., Schewe, J., ... & Shabahat, E. (2021). Groundswell Part 2: Acting on Internal Climate Migration. Washington, DC: World Bank. 

Schewel, K. (2023). Who counts as a climate migrant? Migration Policy Institute, MPI.

Social Protection Programmes: 
  • Social assistance
    • Social transfers
  • Labour market / employment programmes
    • Active labour market programmes / Productive inclusion
      • Productive / economic inclusion programmes
      • Public works programmes
Social Protection Approaches: 
  • Social Protection Floors
Cross-Cutting Areas: 
  • Climate change
  • Humanitarian assistance
  • Migration
  • Global
The views presented here are the author's and not socialprotection.org's