News | Migration / Flight - Socio-ecological Transformation - COP 25 - Climate Justice Preparing for Millions to Move and Resettle

An interview with the scientist Sujatha Byravan

Ejit Island in Majuro Atoll, part of the Marshall Islands, got hit by a storm on March 3. 2014 causing widespread flooding and damaging homes. GIFF JOHNSON / AFP

Krystian Woznicki: Your work deals extensively with dispossession (of homes, jobs, rights, etc.) in the context of climate change. To begin with, what is the crucial difference between dispossession caused by climate change and environmental disaster in general? In what sense do climate change-related catastrophes represent not only a particular category of environmental disaster but also signal a paradigm change that challenges us, last but not least, to reconsider the effects of dispossession?

Sujatha Byravan: We are well aware of the various effects of climate change such as droughts, heavy precipitation, sea level rise, destruction of ecosystems, heat waves and so on. The impacts of these at the local level in most places would be indistinguishable from prevailing local dramas such as poverty and land degradation, which will be made worse by climate change. The poor will get poorer, effects such as flooding—as the result of bad urban planning—will get worse, agricultural practices that deplete the soil and water bodies will lead to the inability to survive droughts from climate change.

Thus, in most places, climate will exacerbate mal-development. But on small islands and low-lying areas that are close to the coast, sea level rise due to climate change will be far more distinctive. Even here, land subsidence can also contribute to relative sea level rise. Another difference is that with environmental disasters of one kind or another, people can usually return home after the crisis abates and things settle down. With some of the effects from climate change, this will not be possible. Homes, communities and nation states can disappear with sea level rise.

Sujatha Byravan is a keynote speaker at the Berliner Gazette international conference MORE WORLD, taking place at ZK/U Berlin from Oct 10-12. The conference is asking: How can we cooperate across borders to tackle climate change? This question will be explored in a three-day program with workshops, performances and public talks.

KW: The only way to adapt to climate change-related threats such as sea level rise is to move away and resettle – a strategy that is becoming a necessity not just for a few but for millions who are currently living along low-lying coasts, deltaic areas or on small Pacific islands. Expanding on the new quality of environmental havoc that climate change is bringing about, I wonder in what sense is said strategy one that is crucially informed by a forward-looking, anticipatory perspective?

SB: With regard to many environmental disasters, there may be little prior notice—or none at all—to prepare for the extreme event. This is also generally true of the impacts of climate change, which include both slow-moving disasters (such as drought and desertification) and extreme events (such as storm surges, floods and severe storms). The case of sea level rise due to the melting of glaciers, however, is special because it is to be expected regardless of what actions are taken today. There is already a large amount of heat in the system. We know that several small islands and delta regions will be flooded out because the break-up of ice sheets is now in progress. As countries begin to realize that certain portions of the coast and low-lying islands are vulnerable to sea level rise, it gives the world the chance to prepare in advance with actions that can reduce the impacts and plan actions that involve moving people and communities to higher ground in places where that may be the only option.

KW: In your work you speak of climate exiles and climate migrants, rather than of climate refugees, last but not least in order to highlight that so far an appropriate legal framework for climate change-induced flight does not exist. What is the main cause of this dilemma and what are its implications for said strategy of moving and resettling as the only viable way to adapt to climate change?

SB: When the Refugee Convention was formulated and went into force, the fact that climate change would have such a large impact on the movement of people was not anticipated. The Convention protects people from political persecution but not from extreme environmental or climactic events. It offers protection only to those who have been forced to leave their country owing to “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” The implications of this are that people who have emitted the least amount of greenhouse gases and are from the poorest countries will be forced to leave their homes and will have no place to go. These “boat people” will have to bear the consequences of the profligate lifestyles and emissions of the rich.

KW: Following up on my previous question, I wonder whether the dilemma of “climate refugees” can also be attributed to the denial of climate change as a political problem comparable to war? Like climate change (and its denial) in general, climate change as an issue of political conflict has been scientifically established—like the term climate wars, for instance, suggests. Moreover, there is evidence of climate change as a cause or trigger of wars such as the ongoing one in Syria. In other words, the mass movements of flight and displacement that have been emerging in the context of the Syrian war can be understood as a particular instance of climate-change induced migration. Is not the denial of such entanglements a major obstacle when it comes to dealing with climate change in an adequate manner?

SB: Many scientists are working on attribution, which relates to estimating to what extent a particular extreme event has been caused by climate change. This kind of modeling works better for some kinds events rather than others. Speaking of climate change-induced migration, for example, it is hard to understand how poverty and violence are leading to migration and to what extent climate change is in the mix. This has caused tension and disagreements in the international negotiation process.

It is also difficult sometimes to separate development and adaptation, which has led to denial of adaptation funds to some countries. How can projects for adaptation be funded or supported when they appear to be regular good policies for development? How does the conversion of floodplains and drainage channels to roads and malls exacerbate severe flooding events? Climate change denial is made possible by these interlocking connections across social and natural systems that are transforming the planet. Those who deny the effects of climate change may be a small minority, but they can sow enough doubt among influential people so as to spawn inaction.

KW: You advocate adaptations to climate change that are not reducible to a single level of impact, but rather pursue a multi-faceted approach that lives up to the complex entanglements we have discussed so far, combining social and economic, logistical and ethical issues, domestic and interstate, local and global politics. How did you initially gain this seminal perspective?

SB: When I began to think about climate change and sea level rise, I was working in an international organization on environment and development. It seemed to me that climate change itself was being denied—and still is by many—while the impacts especially on the poorest would be very severe. My experience with development projects suggested that they offered a lot of lessons for addressing climate change, understanding the roles of elite networks and vested interests in shaping the agenda and the need to sharpen focus on the likely impacts of policies on the most vulnerable.

To give an example: A working group of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a body of the UN, has been studying vulnerabilities to climate change and how people can adapt to it. They have also been looking at how the integration of development with climate change adaptation can take place. What would low carbon development look like? What would developing with climate resilience look like?

How societies might make the transition is the important and difficult question. This would call for reducing consumption in a big way, it would require what has been called transformative change, a term that is in danger of becoming a cliché. Most significantly, it would have to challenge the economic church of capitalism. Some people have said this geological period with homo sapiens on earth should be called “Capitalocene” instead of “Anthropocene”.

KW: In your work you speak of the most severe state crises arising in the case of Egypt, Guyana, Vietnam and Bangladesh. Moreover, not only a destabilization and dissolution, but even entire annihilation of the state in the case of some small islands in the Pacific due to the climate change-induced sea level rise. What are you concrete policy recommendations in those cases with regard to populations that necessarily will have to move away and resettle?

SB: One needs to prepare in advance for movement of people away from small islands and low-lying coastal areas. People from the Pacific islands are already moving. There are a number of changes that need to be made. Regional agreements are required on migration, such as in South Asia or in Southern Africa. There need to be regional labor policies, training and skill development in advance for people who are expected to move from vulnerable areas. Apart from this, one needs to also think about implementing these policies quickly in the most vulnerable areas, such as small islands, well in advance.

For countries in the region, planning to include the most vulnerable as part of their regular legal immigrants could be a way to initiate the process. Whether this will happen is not clear. But there is discussion taking place in the Nansen Initiative that is trying to address cross-border migration as a result of climate change. “It is a bottom-up, state-led consultative process with multi-stakeholder involvement”. There is also a stream in international climate negotiations, distinct from climate mitigation and adaptation, called Loss and Damage (L&D). It is supposed to take care of situations where adaptation is not possible since there is a limit to adaptation. L&D includes both economic and non-economic losses. This L&D stream needs to be strengthened, but is caught in the weeds and has not gained sufficient traction due to opposition from wealthier nations. There is fear of acknowledging responsibility for emissions since that would then mean liability and compensation.

KW: You discuss and reflect in your work the ethical implications for the planetary community. How does the ethical argument take into account the power structures of the world system, as regards both the history of industrialization and the present development status of the relevant state actors?

SB: The idea that was envisioned previously by my co-author and me is an idealized view of how international policies need to move forward to address the issue of climate exiles and migrants. While it is provocative, it also carries important aspects of climate justice, and possibilities for real action now and into the future. Actual migration into countries that have emitted the most greenhouse gases based on historical obligations, as suggested in the Ethics and International Affairs article we published, seems politically unlikely. Still, these ideas are necessary to push people into thinking about the possible solutions to climate issues—solutions that take people’s vulnerabilities and ethics into consideration. But power structures in the world are changing and are dynamic.

The Green New Deal is probably the only document in the US that has, at least in passing, accepted the U.S. historical responsibilities. Children across the world through their protests are taking on adults in their failure to address global warming. Local communities are building models for breaking away from the grid and supporting communities based on new economic models in Germany, in the U.K. and in some other places. Sustainable agricultural practices built around no till and no chemicals are enriching soils and opposing powerful lobbies of the chemical industry. Via Campesina, a peasant struggle for food sovereignty, has become a transnational movement. How we can expand and build on these successes through people’s movements is one important dimension that needs to be explored. It is happening, but the problem the planet faces is that these are transnational, national and local movements are progressing slowly and the earth is warming rapidly.

KW: Expanding the discussion of the planetary community, besides ethical implications there is the pressing issue of how state actors tend to relate to each other in the world system: less in a cooperative manner and more competitively, as rivals. Yet, the only way to live up to the ethical challenges is to cooperate across borders at a virtually global scale. Assessing the first two decades of the new century—arguably, the moment in which humanity has irrevocably become aware of climate change—do you see a change in attitude and behavior when it comes to cross-border cooperation?

SB: Nation states, corporations and people everywhere need to make small and large changes. Nation states are part of clubs, for example, G7 or G77. Sometimes nation states also engage regional forms of collaboration. But these relations were different in the past and are part of a changing dynamic. Even transnational corporations are beginning think about a world where their employees, the environment and ethics matters. There was a recent announcement (made in August) by a group of large corporations including Apple, Pepsi and Walmart to this effect. We don’t know how sincere they are, but these changes are happening because of political and social pressures and rising environmental problems. We should not discount the force of popular movements. But they have to be sustained and get stronger and remain sensitive to the most vulnerable. These are difficult changes to make.

KW: You have been focusing on the subject of climate change-induced migration and resettlement for more than two decades now. What has changed most significantly since you first started working on this topic—at the level of threat scenarios, national and international policies, and civil society engagement?

SB: When we started talking about this in the early 2000s, mainstream media treated climate change as if there were multiple sides to the issue. Our proposal to prepare for a future with climate exiles and migrants was treated as a joke in many quarters. There is certainly greater awareness about the subject of climate change and migration today. There have been some newer developments looking to regional solutions for migration such as the Nansen Initiative. Groups of lawyers, scientists, think tanks and activists who study rights have also discussed the lack of legal rights for climate exiles, but no major change has happened on this matter. Sadly, we still do not have a resolution on the legal standing of climate exiles and migrants.

The interview was first published in English by MEDIAPART.