Until Our Land Is No More
The city of Bonn hosted the UN Climate Change Conference last month (14-25 May). Over 3'000 representatives from 181 countries participated in the talks which are supposed to outline an extension for the Kyoto Protocol (1997). This is an international agreement linked to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate change, and the mandate ends later this year. The signing parties of the Kyoto Protocol recognise that developed countries are principally responsible for the current high levels of greenhouse gas emission as a result of 150 years of industrial activity, and places heavy burden on these nations under the principle of "common but differentiated responsibilities". The Kyoto Protocol commits parties to invest in Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) and emission trading.
Talks in Bonn received little media attention. Similar talks were held in Durban late last year, where participants agreed "in a balanced fashioned" to establish a universal legal agreement on climate change no later than 2015. Rio de Janeiro will host what is expected to be the largest conference in world history later this month. Known as Rio20 (a 20 year follow-up of the breakthrough 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development), this conference will attempt to renew political commitments to sustainable development. The conferences in Germany and Brazil essentially tackle the same issue on different levels: Rio20 is organised by UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA), a part of the UN Secretariat that was considerably expanded after the Millennium Declaration was completed in 2000. Although global warming is recognised, UN DESA will act as a forum for sustainable development and environmental compromise. Bonn on the other hand is supposed to act as a pure catalyst for a renewal of an improved version of the Kyoto Protocol.
As with many climate change conferences, targets were set high in Bonn and dismally thrashed by developed and emerging economies that are unwilling to compromise economic growth in the name of the environment. Many countries were represented by transnational unions, such as the European Union and Least Developed Countries (LDC). The second day of negotiations was, for example, abruptly terminated due to developed countries' unwillingness to discuss formerly decided agendas. YOUNGO, a youth society under the UN Climate Convention umbrella, were not allowed to show a banner saying "Are YOU on OUR side", a slogan used to question developed countries' commitment to climate negotiation, during their presentation.
So where do the marginalised communities, the people who are most likely to cross sovereign borders and be displaced, the ones who will lose their land, come in this picture?
Climate-induced migration is not a new phenomenon. Throughout history people have migrated in order to avoid famine and to seek new opportunities in other regions. Migration is the most effective remedy against poverty, thus economic migration. However, in the post-WWII world with increasing migratory patterns and stricter border regulations combined with rising sea levels and intensifying extreme weather events, communities are subjected to isolation and an unequipped refugee support system. The vast majority of people, who experience climate-induced displacement will, most of the time, migrate locally and internally. Nevertheless, those who cross borders due to climate related events are not protected under the 1951 UNHCR refugee definition.
Bangladesh is a fitting example: high population density, political uncertainty and frequent natural hazards are huge barriers for development. In a report by Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF 2011) it is revealed that there is a "strong link between declining environmental conditions and migration". Forty-six countries - home to 2.7 billion people - are considered to be at high risk of conflict due to the combined effort of socioeconomic and political instability, and the severe effect of climate change.
UNHCR explicitly state that they do not have the resources or mandate to intervene in environmentally driven situations except for exceptional cases. In Europe, only two countries have made provisions in their national asylum and immigration policies by recognising people fleeing environmental disasters. This is a great leap in sculpturing customary international law and setting an example, but Sweden and Finland have been unable to employ them practically.
The Maldives have experienced an 8 inch sea level rise in the last century and has an average natural ground level of 5ft above sea level. The very existence of the Dhivehi people is threatened. Former President Nasheed published plans to purchase land from India, Sri Lanka and Australia as he does not wish for his people to be "climate refugees living in tents for decades". The very identity of the people of the Maldives is facing depletion because of loss of territory. Even if this exceptional event grants the Dhivehi people refugee status, it is nowhere near a remedy for the loss of their land.
Rio20 is partly a celebration commemorating the past 20 years of dedication to sustainable development and partly a platform to undertake new commitments. Investing in clean energy and moving away from coal dependency are necessary measures. However, little is being discussed about the depletion of small island states and what legal protection they have. In my opinion, these people are the most vulnerable, the most marginalised because their fate will uncontrollably develop in whatever direction large economies decide. Climate change is a very inconvenient truth (pun intended). By ignoring it we are denying the cultural heritage and civilian rights bestowed upon thousands of people; from the Polynesian region to southern Asia to the Caribbean islands. The Conservative government in Canada for example withdrew from Kyoto Protocol last year, claiming that the burden for the Canadian household was too heavy. Germany on the other hand leads in its initiative to make itself as sustainable as possible: on May 26th, 22 GW was extracted from solar power, supplying half of the massive country with clean energy. Let us instead encourage green innovation and demand legal recognition for the people who may lose their land. Most of all let us celebrate new commitments for a sustainable world.