Holmes, along with other aid agency heads have addressed side events this week which have focused on the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, who could soon be displaced by climate change.
The European Union has offered just over US$10 billion a year for the next three years for adaptation, which NGOs like the UK-based development agency, Oxfam, said was a fraction of the most credible estimate of $100 billion a year, put forward by the World Bank.
The UN Emergency Relief Coordinator and other aid agency heads underlined the need to help communities become more resilient, so they could face extreme climate events rather than being forced to flee their homes permanently. Holmes said other mechanisms to raise money to help poor countries would have to be found. "Let's face it," he told IRIN, the amount needed will not be put on the table by the rich countries in Copenhagen.
However, Walter Kälin, Representative of the UN Secretary-General on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons, said the message to donors was that they should rather fund initiatives to help poor countries adapt now, as "it will be much cheaper."
Holmes, Kälin and António Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, who also addressed a press briefing in Copenhagen, have been in the front line of providing assistance to people displaced by climate-related natural disasters, which are projected to become more frequent and intense in future.
"At the moment, the numbers are small and the displacement is temporary," Holmes said, but the numbers were expected to rise in the near future and pose a challenge not only to relief agencies, but also to governments, which lacked the capacity to cope. He cited the unprecedented floods in Burkina Faso in September 2009, which displaced some 100,000 people, for whom the government, the UN and aid agencies had to provide temporary housing.
There is widespread consensus that the current legal definition of a refugee should not be altered to accommodate people affected by environmental factors, but there is also a need for a new concept and a legal instrument that would give rights to people displaced by climate change, said Guterres.
Holmes noted that there were mechanisms under which assistance was being provided to people temporarily displaced by climate-related events, and other mechanisms were also being explored. The African Union had sought to provide protection for people displaced by natural disasters and other factors, such as conflict and generalized violence, in the Kampala Convention, an international agreement endorsed this year.
"Other regions need to explore and develop similar mechanisms," said Guterres. Globally, "we are not there yet," but he welcomed recognition of the issue in the draft text on adaptation, the basis for negotiations at the UN climate change talks. "At least we can now start a discussion."
Providing protection to people forced to move across international borders, perhaps permanently, would become a problem for aid and UN agencies under the existing international legal system, said Kälin.
There is a legal precedent being set on the need for governments to act timeously to prevent disasters from affecting their people. He referred to a judgment by the European Court for Human Rights in 2008, which obliged the Russian Federation to compensate the relatives of people killed in a mudslide in the city of Tyrnyauz in Kabardino-Balkaria in 2000. The court found that the authorities had failed to warn the people in time and evacuate them, and that the right to life of the people killed had been violated.
Guterres pointed out that Europe had a negative population growth and would need migrants; instead of trying to shut doors, it could provide meaningful opportunities for people permanently displaced by climate change.