Climate Change, Refugees and Migration

Caroline Mair-Toby discusses the impact of climate change on displacement and refugees 03/12/2015

When I attended the September 2015 negotiating session in Bonn, Germany in the lead up to the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) currently taking place in Paris, no one could have expected what was simultaneously taking place in Europe. A steadily growing trickle of refugees from Syria and other countries had suddenly become a flood into Europe, and were trekking en masse on foot across Europe.

I was working with a London legal institute that was advising developing countries in the climate change negotiations. We focussed on least developing/developed countries (LDCs) and small island developing states (SIDS). It was a frustrating session for the member states. There was no movement in the gridlock between developed and developing countries, as per usual. Suddenly, there was a buzz about what was happening. The Director of our team had left London after us, and his train was just in front of the train that had been stopped in the Chunnel (Channel Tunnel between London and France) because there were migrants on the track.

It was a shocking sight to see on television at the end of the negotiations each day, on the only non-German channel in my hotel room. Hordes of refugees struggling through Europe, banded together for safety. They reminded me of footage of former wars, refugees relocating themselves, escaping from war-torn sites, or trying to make their way back home.

The world was surprised by the flood of migrants. But climate change experts have long been warning of climate changeinduced migration and displacement for several years now, as an indirect result of slow onset damage brought about by climate change. These assertions have until recently been met with ridicule. But the years have proved them correct.

In a 2010 scholarly article Professor Juusola of Helsinki stated that between 2006 and 2010, a severe drought that was strongly exacerbated by climate change, led to devastating losses in livestock and wheat production in northeastern Syria, the seat of power of ISIL. He predicted that if future droughts resulted in a major food crisis, Syria was likely to witness serious political instability. Columbia University researchers corroborated this in a report by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, finding that this drought had deteriorated the existing water security and agricultural situation and caused about 1.5 million people to migrate into urban areas. They asserted that this worsened conditions in the country, fostering internal conflict and played a significant role in facilitating the growth of extremist movements such as ISIL. And as a result, the mass migration from the war-torn Syria.

The Carteret Islands of the Pacific are an extreme example of climate change-induced migration. These tiny atolls off the coast of Papua New Guinea have been subject to rising sea levels for years now, the canaries in a coal mine of climateinduced damage. Carteret Island residents became famous when they were dubbed the first climate-change migrants or ‘refugees’. They were forced to leave their homes because loss and damage to residences, agriculture, and water supply.

But not all climate-related loss and damage comes in the form of rising sea levels or drought. Every year we see it in the Caribbean in the form of the damage wreaked by increasingly powerful and erratic hurricanes. In a recent talk, Rueanna Haynes, Trinidad & Tobago's First Secretary to the UN and a delegate at the UNFCCC negotiations, eloquently described the impact of the unpredictability of out-of-season hurricanes on Caribbean islands:

“Imagine if you live in a world where these events happen much more frequently. Every few months. There is no particular season. You have no idea when it is going to happen. Each time it happens, the intensity increases. More people die. No amount of money you can borrow can afford you to build the type of infrastructure that you need to withstand these events. Imagine that. And then imagine you could do something to stop it. That is where we’re coming from.”

What is the role of small island states, then? We haven't always been listened to in international negotiations. But we are a powerful force, small but indomitable, and we have loud voices. It is our job and responsibility as a small island, and I dare say as a polluter (in Trinidad’s case), to ensure sustainability, security and environmental stability for future generations. The onus is even stronger upon us as Trinidad has the dubious honour of being both a small island and an emitter, ranking 2nd in the world after Qatar regarding emissions per capita.

This week, the heads of state of nations from all over the world have descended upon Paris for the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) of the United Nations climate change negotiations.

To understand the implications of international law and the interaction of developing and developed states, and what this means in the fight against climate change, it is necessary to understand the relationship and histories between developed and developing countries.

These issues are reflected in the UN Convention on Climate Change in the form of principles such as common but differentiated responsibility (CBDR). These stem from general principles of equity in international law. The principle acknowledges the historical differences in the contributions of developed and developing States to climate change, and differences in their respective economic and technical capacity to address these problems.

One important aspect of this principle is international assistance, which includes financial aid and technology transfer. As developed countries have played the biggest role in creating most of the global emissions, they are better positioned to tackle them, due to the historical profits they have accrued from their industrial development. According to the international law principle of CBDR, they should therefore take the lead on fixing these problems. Developed countries should mitigate their emissions and advance sustainable development on their own turf, but also, they are expected to provide financial, technological, and other assistance to help developing countries fulfil their sustainable development responsibilities. There is also the question of whether they should provide what is essentially reparations for loss and damage to developing countries.

These concepts cause much tension and gridlock in the climate negotiations. But what developing countries and small islands want is not charity. They want remedies for the damages caused in the past, and that are continuing to this day. Damage that we did not cause. We cannot adapt to the changing climate in a vacuum. Financial support for technological development and transfer are an imperative. We cannot rebuild damaged infrastructure out of goodwill.

At the opening of the COP21 in Paris, there was a moment of silence at the opening of for the victims of the November 13 terror attacks in Paris. However, the fallout from the tragic Paris attacks has shown the ugly face of xenophobia not only in Europe in discrimination against Muslims, but even as far as the US in the strident election campaigning. There is growing anger and increased resistance against migration.

But there will be more refugees. The trickle has become a flood, and as more unprecedented environmental extremes, variations and stresses lead to or exacerbate other economic, social and political tensions, there is every expectation that the flood will grow. And it will grow, unless countries fully participate and address the key issues of loss and damage and migration in the COP21 in Paris.