Blog Action Day 09: Climate Change: Paradise Lost

Boy am I late in the game here…It’s not even *really* October 15th anymore, but hey. In any case, I’m really happy to contribute to Blog Action Day 09 (BAD09). If you haven’t heard of it, BAD09 is a great, simple initiative from our friends over at change.org. Basically, it’s “an annual event that unites the world’s bloggers in posting about the same issue on the same day. Our aim is to raise awareness and trigger a global discussion.” BAD organizers emphasize that the first and last purpose of BAD is to create a discussion – clearly, a blog post (or 10,000) can’t be the tipping point on an issue like climate change, which is not only broad and complex, but also divisive and polarizing. It’s an honor to be a part of it, and I hope that this post will, at the very least, be thought provoking.

Few places in the world inspire awe like the beautiful atolls of the Indian and Pacific Ocean. Their startling blue waters and white sandy beaches have inspired artists and attracted tourists since modern transportation has made these little pieces of paradise accessible. However, climate change has made these typically low-lying, coral protected islands atolls — such as the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu or the Maldives — particularly vulnerable. Rising sea levels, storm surges and the increased acidification of ocean waters, which contributes to the loss of coral reefs, are already threatening the livelihoods of these islands’ inhabitants. According to the Intergovernemental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC):

  • Sea-level rise is expected to exacerbate inundation, storm surge, erosion and other coastal hazards, thus threatening vital infrastructure, settlements and facilities that support the livelihood of island communities
  • There is strong evidence that under most climate change scenarios, water resources in small islands are likely to be seriously compromised.

Studies from the University of Copenhagen (here and here) argue that island cultures have developed and refined coping mechanisms to handle variations in climate and habitat: storm surges, erosion and shifting sea levels are fundamental features of island life, and cultures have adapted to these realities. However, the current challenges posed by climate change patterns are so stark, that traditional coping strategies will likely not suffice:

Polynesian cultures on small islands in the Pacific have a long tradition for adapting to climate change and variability, as well as to changes in other factors, in order to maintain their culture and way of life. Current and future climate change constitutes, however, a qualitatively and quantitatively different set of challenges.

While there is still some degree of uncertainty as to exactly what the impact of current climate patterns will be on island atolls, there is a broad consensus that (i) these effects are caused by increased CO2 in the atmosphere, a lot of it attributable to human activity and, (ii) that there is a strong chance that these islands will become unsuitable for people to live on. In fact, it is the very existence of island atolls that is at stake.

(Watch: Impact of Climate Change in the Pacific from Oxfam Australia on Vimeo.)

To draw attention to the threat faced by low-lying islands, the Maldives government will be holding an underwater cabinet meeting on October 17:

The president of the Maldives is desperate for the world to know how seriously his government takes the threat of climate change and rising sea levels to the survival of his country. He wants his ministers to know as well.

To this end, Mohamed Nasheed has organised an underwater cabinet meeting and told all his ministers to get in training for the sub-aqua session. Six metres beneath the surface, the ministers will ratify a treaty calling on other countries to cut greenhouse emissions.

pg-24-maldives-afp-_248191s
AFP/Getty

The Maldives, like other island atolls, may very well become uninhabitable by the end of the century. This raises a number of critical questions regarding the legal obligation of states to provide a territory to live on for its citizens. If entire island nations disappear, what then happens to its people, its culture? The Maldives government has been wrestling with this question, and is establising a sovereign wealth fund with revenues generated from tourism for the purchase of territory. President Nasheed said

Sri Lanka and India were targets because they had similar cultures, cuisines and climates. Australia was also being considered because of the amount of unoccupied land available.”We do not want to leave the Maldives, but we also do not want to be climate refugees living in tents for decades.”

The Maldives highest point is 2.4 meters above sea level.
The Maldives highest point is 2.4 meters above sea level.

In the Pacific, the Carteret Islands have become the poster child for the issue of climate related migration flows. The Carteret Islanders, a matrilineal community living on an island chain 50 miles off the coast of Papua New Guinea, have become the world’s first “climate refugees”. The government of Papua New Guinea has begun the evacuation, scheduled until 2020, of some 3,000 islanders.

While predictions vary as to the precise number of people around the world who will be forcibly displaced by climate related events, a commonly accepted figure is that an estimated 200-250 million people will have to migrate by 2050 as a result of climate change. According to Oxfam, 75 million of these people are living in poor islands and low-lying areas of the Pacific. And, as the evacuation of the Carteret Islands is a clear demonstration of, there is an urgent need to create legal safeguards for “climate refugees”.

The UNHCR estimates that there are 42 million displaced people in the world, 25 million of which are receiving assistance or protection from the agency. Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), which constitute a majority of the displaced (26 of 42 million) do not, in fact, fall under the mandate of the UNHCR de facto – the agency regroups certain IDPs, stateless persons and other special cases that do not fall under its strict, narrow mandate under the umbrella of “persons of concern.”

Migration and asylum-seeking due to climate change will likely be on the increase in the coming years, however, the UNHCR (or any other international organization, for that matter) does not have a mandate to protect or assist “climate refugees”. Legal and funding constraints mean that dealing with “climate refugees” will most likely not be a core UNHCR task.  Not only that, but there is currently a dearth of legislation (both international and national) that would guarantee the rights of people displaced by climate change. Rajesh Chhabara, writing for Climate Change Corp, explains:

Sources at UNHCR, who want to remain anonymous, add that UNHCR is not equipped or designed to handle hundreds of millions of refugees from climate change. It already finds its resources stressed in handling the 14.3 million political refugees in the world.

Clarifying UNHCR’s position, Yoichiro Tsuchida, UNHCR Senior Advisor on Climate Change, explains that the case for environment refugees is too complicated and disparate to fit within the current refugee framework. Justifying international migration due to natural disasters is difficult, as is the task of attributing environmental phenomena directly to climate change. “While environmental factors can contribute to prompting cross-border movements, they are not grounds, in and of themselves, for the grant of refugee status under international refugee law,” she says.

Tsuchida claims that “the broader international human rights regime” should serve as the basis for guiding the responsibility of states towards people who are in need of international protection but who do not qualify for refugee status.

Elements of a response are being developed – Australia and New Zealand, whose small neighbors are sinking, are beginning to shape policy responses. New Zealand, for example, has a Pacific Access Category for migrants hailing from Pacific islands, a fast track, simplified immigration option. The Australian Labour Party published a policy paper in 2006, “Our Drowning Neighbours“, which outlines steps for Australia to take to assist Pacific islands. The paper includes recommendations regarding what sort of assistance Australia should provide Pacific islands to mitigate the effects of climate change, as well as its responsibility as a leading voice for the advocacy of strong action internationally and locally to address climate change.

However, while these initiatives are necessary, they only begin to scratch the surface of the problem. Some experts suggest that policy makers need to construe the inevitable migration flows resulting from climate change as an opportunity rather than a burden. Indeed, while displaced people and migrants already suffer disproportionately from discrimination and difficulties in integration, it is critical for policy makers and governments to prepare us for increased and more complex migration flows. A paper prepared for the Expert Group Meeting on Population Dynamics and Climate Change in June 2009 argues:

There is growing evidence suggesting that mobility, in conjunction with income diversification, is an important strategy to reduce vulnerability to environmental and non-environmental risks – including economic shocks and social marginalisation. In many cases, mobility not only increases resilience but also enables individuals and households to accumulate assets. As such, it will probably play an increasingly crucial role in adaptation to climate change. Policies that support and accommodate mobility and migration are important for both adaptation and the achievement of broader development goals.

In addition to questions related to the development of an appropriate framework for managing migration due to climate change, the consequences of the impending disaster facing islanders is well summarized by Tarita Holm, an analyst with the Palauan Ministry of Resources and Development. Of the displacement and relocation of islanders, she says: “It is about much more than just finding food and shelter,” said  “It is about your identity.”

Addressing climate change is more than just figuring out how and when a carbon tax is appropriate, or whether coal is clean or not. It will force us to grapple with very difficult and fundamental questions about the preservation of culture and civilizations.

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