Preparing for the climate exiles

"Intense storms, heat waves, droughts and sea level rise are all expected to exacerbate living conditions to such an extent that people could be forced to move from their homes and become climate exiles.” Picture shows a woman on a raft in the flood-affected Rampur village, 35 km from Guwahati. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar   | Photo Credit: RITU RAJ KONWAR

Although firm numbers are not available, reports suggest that more than 4,00,000 people have arrived at the European Union (EU) border so far this year, driven by wars and conflicts in places such as Syria, Afghanistan and Eritrea. In recent weeks, we have watched in horror the images of officers firing water cannons and tear gas at desperate crowds at borders and railway stations, of people struggling ashore on small dinghies, and of children who could not make it across.

One hopes that these pictures are not a glimpse into a future with climate change impacts and the resulting conflicts. Disasters such as intense storms and heat waves and slow moving changes like droughts and sea level rise (SLR) are expected to exacerbate living conditions to such an extent that people could be forced to move from their homes and become climate exiles. Many may be forced to move into neighbouring, more protective spaces in the same country or perhaps across national borders. According to the 2006 Stern Review, climate change may displace 200 million people by the middle of the century

Island Nations

Consider, for example, atoll nations in the Pacific such as Tuvalu or the Maldives in the Indian Ocean. With an elevation of only a few metres above sea level, these islands will suffer the worst effects of storms and flooding and may be partly or entirely submerged by even a couple of metres of SLR. While the population of these small island states is relatively small, people will have to leave their country without a viable nation state. Those forced to move in this manner have no legal standing under the United Nations Refugee Convention, which offers protection only for those who have been forced to leave their country owing to “well-grounded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion.”

Worst of all, the people most affected by these changes will be among the poorest and most vulnerable. Their own nations’ contributions to greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations in the atmosphere are relatively trivial, but they would suffer some of the most severe effects. It is no surprise then that Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) has called for global action to limit warming to 1.5°C, as opposed to the general focus on a 2°C limit. In a grim reminder of reality, however, the World Bank in its report “Turn Down the Heat” says that without action, we could be seeing warming by 4°C above pre-industrial levels.

Low-lying delta regions of the world such as those of the Irrawaddy and the Ganges-Brahmaputra are also vulnerable to the effects of SLR. More than a tenth of humanity resides in vulnerable regions of the world that are within 10 metres of today’s sea level, also known as Low Elevation Coastal Zones (LECZ). Close to half of Bangladesh lies in the LECZ and these areas will be severely affected by rising seas.

Anticipating these changes with rising temperature, it is important that we prepare to address these issues instead of building fortress-like nations. Regional agreements, joint action, training and skills, sharing of knowledge, technologies, lessons from successes and failures to adapt should all be part of a regional focus in preparing for SLR. Labour agreements are especially important and should be combined with skill building and training in advance of migration.

Loss and damage

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has acknowledged a domain referred to as Loss and Damage (L&D), which essentially tries to capture these types of inability to cope with the effects of warming. This is distinct from mitigation, or reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and adaptation, or finding ways to live in a warmer world. At the Conference of Parties (COP19) of the UNFCCC, held in Warsaw in 2013, all parties agreed to set up a new mechanism on L&D. The issue is important because even after GHG emissions are reduced and communities adapt to climate change, there would still be loss and damage to people, livelihoods and infrastructure as a result of their inability to cope with climate change. Loss generally refers to the complete forfeiture of items like land, ecosystems, or of human lives, while damage refers to the harm to infrastructure and property that could be repaired. The term includes both economic and non-economic losses.

In order to gain traction, however, this issue needs support from rich countries (Annex-1 countries in UN parlance). The term L&D has, at any rate, come to imply liability and compensation, which makes it particularly challenging for rich countries, which are responsible for the bulk of the GHG concentrations in the atmosphere. It is still not clear if L&D will figure at all in the negotiations and whether it would then be part of the core agreement at Paris.

The Loss and Damage mechanism is up for review in 2016 and developing countries want to ensure that it is part of the core agreement in Paris, so that its centrality is established. This is why developing countries “are fighting tooth and nail to ensure L&D figures in the core agreement”, said Indrajit Bose from Third World Network.

Commentators on a recently concluded meeting in Bonn, a preparatory meeting for the Paris COP, have said progress was slow but others contend that various issues will get trimmed down as discussions move forward and the focus will shift to ‘key matters’. With less than three months remaining to decide these questions, time is running out.

The refugee crisis in Europe reminds us that the Paris agreement needs to be wider than just the reduction of greenhouse gases, or mitigation. The text of the recently concluded meeting of Like Minded Developing Countries in Delhi states that the issues for the Paris COP are “mitigation, adaptation, finance, capacity building, technology development and transfer, transparency of action and support as well as loss and damage.” Acknowledging and acting on these issues would help prevent the kind of crisis we are now seeing in Europe in future as a result of climate change.

(Sujatha Byravan is Principal Research Scientist, Centre for Study of Science, Technology & Policy [CSTEP] )

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Printable version | Dec 3, 2020 11:57:07 PM |

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