Activists demand climate refugees be recognized

Campaign for legal recognition of climate refugees would be a long struggle.


A 2015 tidal surge caused the sea to flood across the islands of Kiribati, the small Pacific island nation chain of atolls. Ocean water gushed into buildings, including Betio Hospital. This came as a wakeup call to the more than 100,000 residents who live near the International Date-Line. They are the first to see each day currently – but they could be the first nation whose homeland is lost completely to climate change.

The majority of Kiribati’s 33 islands sit less than six feet above sea level. The crisis in 2015 provoked a dramatic response. Land has since been brought in from Fiji, and Kiribatians are planning to escape before 2021.

An isolated nation, not an isolated issue

Kiribati’s situation speaks volumes about climate change. Its inhabitants, like the majority of the world’s population from the Global South, have done little to cause climate change. Yet those same people are facing its worst consequences. Recent research shows that just 100 corporations are responsible for 70 percent of greenhouse gases pumped into the atmosphere since 1988.

The picture is similar looking back into the mid-19th century. Between 1850 and 2010, only 90 corporations have profited from the creation of 63 percent of man-made warming gases. The takeaway: climate change was catalyzed, and made profoundly worse, as a result of industries owned by the 1% in the richest countries.

This issue needs systemic redress

While rising sea levels now threaten every low lying island on Earth, climate change is also causing people to flee their homes – moving both within their countries of origin and across borders for sanctuary – due to other factors. The Syrian Civil war is one example, where extreme drought caused masses of people to leave rural areas for the cities, increasing economic instability. Similarly, extreme weather events such as Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines both kill people and destroy homes; more than 4 million people were displaced alone by this super-typhoon.

A collaborative U.K. government and leading scientist initiative, Avoid-2, warns that even if the world warms on average by 2 degrees by 2100, there will be 25 percent more heat wave and flooding incidents. In addition, 10 percent more people will face water shortages and crop degradation will increase by one-fifth.

Of course, if temperatures rise more than 2 degrees, these crises intensify.

The future for Kiribatians – and all those impacted – cuts to the heart of a socially just response to climate change. One key element is adaptation, for instance, providing people with land to replace what has become uninhabitable. Another issue is mitigation: doing everything we can globally to keep temperature as low as possible and lessen the numbers of people driven from their lands. Looking to a just future, many argue that those who most profited from climate change – the 1% and multinational corporations – should pay reparations to their victims. But here we’re confronted by yet another issue.

Seeking a response at Fiji COP23

By 2050, based on conservative estimates, the U.N. expects that there will be over 250 million climate refugees. A core problem is that these people are not currently recognized in international law, which means they receive no legal protection. This is because the law was mainly written after WWII, in response to the genocide and persecution of the Holocaust.

To correct this, environmentalists and campaigners are looking ahead to this year’s annual climate conference to amplify pressure on governments to deal with climate change victims. The COP23 provides a unique opportunity to put the issues of climate refugees and vulnerable nations on the international agenda.

This year Fiji will organize the COP climate conference, hosted in Bonn, Germany on Nov. 6-17. It will be the first time a vulnerable island nation runs the global summit, raising a focus on this theme. On the issue of mitigation, Fiji hosted a meeting of Pacific Nations in 2015 that led to the Suva Declaration, which demands that coal remain in the ground due to the high pollution and threat it represents to islanders’ futures.

This creates a strong connection between the conference and its German setting, as one of German’s key environmental campaigns is against further coal extraction, centered in the region near Bonn. The weekend before the conference there will be a family-friendly march against Germany’s coal use, with a nearby direct action intended to shut down part of the coal infrastructure. Alongside coal, pressuring governments to recognize climate refugees is also a core message of the People’s Climate Summit taking place before the governments’ conference.

Unions uniting for climate justice

The U.K. is one place taking a lead on climate refugees. In February, London united environmentalists with trade unions for the first time in a conference held about the issue. The conference highlighted the intersectionality of the crisis – and how it can unite activists and campaigners working on human rights with those working in the environment and trade unions.

One of the conference speakers was Chidi King, from the International Trade Unions Confederation, an organization representing national trade unions. King said, “You cannot talk about a world that eradicates poverty with a carbon economy, it is just not possible. So we have established a Just Transition Centre [launched during the 2016 COP22 climate talks in Marrakesh] that brings trade unionists [together] with civil society, activists and employers and governments to engage in a series of dialogues about how we make the transition to a greener economy.”

The conference made it clear that the campaign for legal recognition of climate refugees would be a long struggle. But there have been signs of traction. Notably, last September, the UN General Assembly supported a Global Compact for Migration, which will report in 2018 about the links between refugees and climate change. More recently, in June 2017, the UN Human Rights Council promised urgent action on human rights and climate change.

These international developments will probably not come quick enough for the inhabitants of Kiribati, but they could ensure the human rights protections to millions of others this century.


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