Presentation: ‘Uprooted by Climate Change: Responding to the Growing Risk of Displacement’
On Wednesday morning a panel of experts on refugee issues and representatives from vulnerable nations spoke on the topic of climate change-driven displacement at a panel titled “Uprooted by Climate Change: Responding to the Growing Risk of Displacement”. The experts represented the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), Oxfam International, and the Coastal Association for Social Transformation (COAST) Trust of Bangladesh. After the organizational representatives gave an overview of the issue, the country representatives from Bangladesh and Kiribati talked about the lived reality of climate change in their countries.
The moderator introduced the urgency of the issue with the statistic that between 2008-2016, an average of 25 million people per year were displaced by natural disasters; this number is rapidly increasing as climate change makes disasters more frequent and severe. However, these forced migration numbers do not include people who migrate due to “slow-onset” events – more gradual climatic shifts (such as prolonged droughts) which endanger their livelihoods and security. The presentation by Simon Bradshaw of Oxfam stated that the four goals of all migration policy should be to: 1) Minimize displacement (by limiting warming to 1.5°C, 2) Uphold rights for people on the move, 3) Support long-term strategies for safe and dignified migration and 4) Provide finance and resources for people forced to migrate.
More research into the issue of climate-induced migration is being done by the newly created Task Force on Displacement, which will present its findings at the next COP in 2018, and the Global Compact on Migration, which is being developed under the auspices of the UN Migration Agency to create a global set of rules to facilitate safe and dignified international migration.
However, the panelists announced their intention to step away from more technical talks about projections and emissions targets, and to speak directly about the human costs of climate change. As Mr. Bradshaw stated, “being forced from your home epitomizes the injustice of climate change.” The impacts of climate change are felt first by low-income and rural people, who have contributed the least to the problem. Even the most conservative projections show that the majority of low-lying island nations will be inundated by sea level rise. The residents of these nations will be forced to leave their homes and faced with the loss of their culture which is inextricably tied to the land and sea.
His Excellency Anote Tong, former President of Kiribati, spoke movingly about the future of his islands. He began by stating that he comes to the conference primarily as a grandfather. As he said, “every time I see my grandchildren play, I ask myself where they will end up. Because it won’t be in Kiribati. There will be no Kiribati.” Even according to the most conservative projections of sea-level rise, the majority of Kiribati will be submerged. “Whatever the rise is, it will be disastrous”, because the islands are only a few feet above sea level, and each new study shows that previous predictions of worst-case scenarios were optimistic. “We will be submerged, there is no other option. Even if we all cut to zero emissions right now, our islands will be submerged.” He described how he is facing denial even in his own country, because of course people cannot bring themselves to imagine a future where they have no home. Changes in weather patterns pose the most pressing threat to the islands. In the past, powerful Pacific cyclones originated in the South Pacific (where Kiribati is located) and moved away, but for the first time, a powerful storm moved south and hit the islands this year. According to Tong “we will not be here to see the islands be submerged” because his people will have to leave first due to hurricanes. Knowing that they will have to relocate, Kiribati is looking to buy land on Fiji or elsewhere to which they can relocate. However, the international community has not reached out to offer help or aid. Tong does not want to use the word “climate refugees” for his people, because he wants his people to be able to migrate with dignity and on their own terms – “we have more than enough time to prepare ourselves.” He hopes to be able to educate and to train his people, giving them the international qualifications they need to be valuable citizens of whatever country they have to move to.
In his concluding remarks, he talked about the ways in which climate change is a moral challenge which will test human values. He compared climate change to the sinking of the Titanic, and asked “will you let us into the lifeboat, or will you push us away so that we do not clutter up your space?” The citizens of Kiribati and other islands in the Pacific are some of the first victims of climate change, despite having made a negligible contribution to the problem. This presentation emphasized to the entire audience that climate change is at its heart an issue of justice, and called on us to act on our moral duty to care for each other.
Emma Rapperport is a Master’s Student at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, focusing Human Dimensions of Environmental Management. She is especially interested in sustainable agriculture and environmental communications, and speaks German, Spanish, and French.