News | COP 25 The climate crisis leads to loss, damage and displacement

Will COP25 act on the emergency?

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Drought in Nicaragua
Sean Hawkey

The 25th Conference of Parties (COP25) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is crucial as far as effectively responding to the clear and present danger of a breakdown in the Earth’s natural systems.

The climate negotiations in Madrid is taking place amid the backdrop of a climate emergency. Since the beginning of October 2019 alone, more than 500,000 people in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia have been displaced due to floods and extreme heavy rainfalls caused by atypically high water temperatures in the Indian Ocean. It hit a region that has long been suffering from droughts, crop failures, hunger and poverty. Climate change exacerbates already existing social injustices. Its devastation comes through sudden and slow-onset events that claim lives and destroy the livelihoods of entire communities. People who already live in poverty have even less chance of ever escaping it. The climate crisis is already leading to migration and displacement worldwide; it is by no means an abstract scenario for the future.

The Manila Initiative on the Rights of Climate Migrants

"The Manila Initiative on the Rights of Climate Migrants" (2019) was the outcome of the International Solidarity Conference on the Rights of Climate Migrants „Beyond Labels, Beyond Borders“ that took place in Manila from 17 to 19 September 2019. The conference spearheaded by Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung Philippines and co-organized with KALIKASAN-People’s Network for the Environment, International Migrants Alliance (IMA) and Asian Peoples Movement on Debt and Development (APMDD), brought together people from the academe, civil society, activists, government agencies, intergovernmental bodies and different stakeholders from countries and regions most vulnerable to climate change and climate-induced migration to exchange and discuss the situation, challenges and appropriate responses to this growing phenomenon.

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„Beyond Labels, Beyond Borders“

«The climate crisis is the culmination of centuries of resource plunder and environmental destruction of the Earth by wealthy nations and corporations. Many people on the ground, particularly those who contributed the least or not at all to the causes of this crisis, are experiencing the worst of its impacts, and have also exacerbated their exposure to a myriad of structural inequities. They lose access to their lands, food and water and other sources of livelihood and their ability to manage them. Intensified neoliberal globalization has been driving this crisis.» (The Manila Initiative on the Rights of Climate Migrants 2019)

COP25 will evaluate the work of the Warsaw International Mechanism (WIM), one of the key outcomes of the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015. This review must provide a way forward towards the WIM being more than a place of information exchange. COP25 and the Paris Agreement must also get back on track on the issue of liability and compensation, and deliver more than just tentative and cautious language What is urgently needed is a mechanism that is institutionally upgraded to effectively protect the rights of those affeted by the adverse impacts of climate change, including providing the required financial means. And with this demand we underscore what is (also) crucial to the call for climate justice: polluters, i.e. rich industriazed countries need to pay off their ecological debt.

Climate crisis and the rights of climate migrants

According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC), there were 10.8 million new displacements worldwide in the first half of 2019. Environmental, natural or climate-induced disasters triggered seven million of these. In India and Bangladesh, Cyclone Fani led to the resettlement and displacement of 3.4 million people in May 2019. The year 2019 is expected to be one of the years with one of the highest numbers of people ever recorded who have to leave their homes due to extreme weather events. Climate-induced migration has become a sad "normality".

In recent years, science has become increasingly aware of the connections between the climate crisis and migration. While it is difficult to determine exactly who will have to flee because of the consequences of climate change, estimates vary accordingly from 25 million to one billion people who will have to migrate worldwide by 2050 because of the climate crisis. Very few of them will make it beyond their own country's borders, and very few will be able to flee to Europe or the USA. It is important to know the extent of future migration movements in order to find international or national policy approaches. From the perspective of those affected, it is above all a question of protecting their rights and addressing the root causes of their vulnerability. And it cannot be emphasized often enough that fleeing from climate hotspots is not an 'adaptation strategy', it is an attempt  at  'survival' of people who have been forced or pushed away by the climatic stimuli in the context of 'adaptation failure'.

The connections between climate crisis and migration have meanwhile become an integral part of several multilateral processes. So far, however, there are no legally binding conventions protecting the rights of "climate migrants". The Global Compact on Migration of 2018 recognises climate change as a reason for migration, and the UNFCCC also talks extensively about climate-induced migration.

To renegotiate the Geneva Convention on Refugees in the current times, when nationalism, racism and isolationist policies are strengthening, would be a delicate undertaking. Andi t would not support the rights of the internally displaced, since this Convention only secures the rights of those who have fled internationally. The demands of the affected communities and countries rightly call for the polluter, i.e. industrialised countries as Germany, to pay for losses and damages due to the impacts of climate change.

«However, commitments from these governments have been lacking owing to the refusal to acknowledge their historical and current responsibilities and the strong lobbying of corporations. As corporations and financial institutions benefit from the status quo, governments and international bodies are predisposed to favor proposals to operate on a “business as usual” scenario by employing false solutions to the climate crisis. We strongly oppose these measures as they do not address the real causes of climate change and threaten to derail the little progress made in solving this catastrophe.» (The Manila Initiative on the Rights of Climate Migrants 2019)

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Where’s the finance and again, the rights of climate migrants

An important first step would be to provide additional funding for states from and in which people are displaced or resettled because of climate change. Building social protection systems and institutional capacities in the affected countries  will become even more important as a result of the climate crisis. In addition, it is imperative to set up disaster warning systems and permit technology transfer. And this is where the WIM becomes so crucial. The WIM must be enabled with a financial facility, become a hub of relevant and urgently required information and organize the coordination of different existing international, regional and local institutions including the voices from the communities that are at the frontline oft he the climate crisis.

Talking about climate-induced migration on the one hand, it must be about enabling people to migrate with dignity, as demanded by the state of Kiribati, which is threatened by complete sinking into the sea. People’s human rights are not lost when they move, and States are duty bound to uphold these rights even when crossing borders. Here the demand for the  „right to freedom of movement“ becomes crucial. But it should be clear that climate-induced migration happens because people are no longer able to adapt to climate change within their own homes and countries.. Those affected, such as the inhabitants of Tuvalu, demand that the perpetrators of the climate crisis must ensure that they do not have to leave their homeland – i.e. asserting that they have a "right to stay" as well.

The United Nations is now discussing the demand for climate passports. Similar to the Nansen Passport which gave stateless persons access to a new nationality after the First World War, climate passes should offer a possible solution. In this case, it would be the task of the industrialized countries to issue such passports. New Zealand was the first country in the world to launch a programme to issue visas for "climate refugees" from the Pacific Islands.

The Paris Agreement, the COPs and the WIM – it’s all not where it needs to be

So far the COP decisions on ‘displacement and migration” were just reiteration of earlier issues, i.e. knowledge generation, development of technical papers and strengthening coordination among different actors outside of the UNFCCC etc. Moreover, discussion at different COPs surfaced debates on the theoretical perspectives of considering the issue plainly as a humanitarian crisis, while bypassing obligation of the countries to correct the ‘manifest injustice’ that caused/and exacerbate the crisis.

Hence, policy discussion around climate induced displacement and migration should comprehensively cover the entirety of ‘displacement and migration’ along with their key drivers e.g. climate change impacts and climate processes. This is not disaster displacement, as, literally, disaster displaced are similar to the IDPs that lacks the trans-boundary dimension.

The "Warsaw International Mechanism on Loss and Damage" of the UNFCCC offers an important multilateral negotiating lever. However, the polluter states have so far refused to make additional funds available. This blocking on finance obligations  is linked in the overall to the industrialized countries‘ strong position against ‚liability and compensation‘ for losses and damages. The WIM is to be reviewed at COP25, and  pressure must be exerted on the negotiators to create a functioning mechanism for climate-induced loss and damage.

It remains important to exert political pressure on the German government to fulfil its obligations. Here, climate justice movements will have to play an important role.

Negotiations should not be limited only within the mandate and timeframe of the Paris Agreement nor the WIM only. The scope and measures for addressing displacement and migration should be reflected throughout the UNFCCC. Merging displacement and migration to the loss and damage work-stream made this issue indistinguishable. It is unlikely that the WIM would be able to adequately address the issue unless an independent institutional and governance mechanism is established under the Convention. Such a protocol should be drawn on the basis of the founding principles of the UNFCCC such as ‘common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capacities’ (CBDR-RC) and should focus both at international and domestic levels to ensure comprehensive protection from the impacts of climate change, and guarantee protection of substantive human rights as per international law.

At the same time it remains important to exert political pressure on the German government to fulfil its obligations. Here, climate justice movements will have to play an important role. Fighting against coal mines and fossil power plants is crucial to the struggle against the climate crisis, but as the devastation is already ongoing and since it requires the global north starting to pay off its ecological dept, the demands for compensation and finance for loss and damage must be taken on as well.

«Commit to build the capacities of peoples on the ground, fortify solidarity among communities, movements and networks from the local to the global level through knowledge sharing and supporting one another’s campaigns and other initiatives. Evidence-based policy recommendations through scientific research shall be developed in close partnership with grassroots communities and sectors.» (The Manila Initiative on the Rights of Climate Migrants 2019)

The causes of flight must be combated consistently where they are generated. To fight the climate crisis still means a consistent climate policy in the rich and industrialized states that recognises the interests and rights of those who have contributed the least, such as the people in the global South. It also means overcoming a racist and neocolonial power structure.

«Only through a comprehensive restructuring of the economy and the society can climate justice be achieved. We must address the root causes of climate change, social inequality and injustice, and forced displacement.» (The Manila Initiative on the Rights of Climate Migrants 2019)