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November 10, 2016

Responding To: The Global Challenge of Climate-Induced Migration

Acknowledging the Effects of Climate Change

Camille Gaskin-Reyes

In his remarks the former president of Kiribati continues to sound the alarm bell on the importance of reducing greenhouse gases for the survival of his people in Kiribati and other vulnerable countries—and ultimately for the future of the planet. Mr. Tong warns that we are destroying the foundation of our existence, and he raises some concerns about humankind’s willingness and capacity to do something about it. This is one case where time is really of the essence—and as he reminds us, time is already running out for Kiribati and other vulnerable communities and societies.

Since Mr. Tong’s remarks, a landmark Paris agreement has officially gone into effect on November 4, 2016. The world’s eyes are now locked onto how policy makers, energy leaders, corporations, stakeholders, communities, and individuals can come together to reduce emissions to meet the goal to limit the increase in global temperatures to two degrees Celsius. While 195 countries have signed the agreement, so far only 94 countries have moved to ratification. 

These 94 countries represent about 65 percent of all global emissions, so it is a start. However, keeping our eyes on the collective ball requires aggressive action by all 195 countries. It requires funding: billions of dollars. It also involves a long-term global energy shift to renewable sources, changes in incentives and taxation regimes, and pervasive modifications in trade, transportation, aviation, industrial and agricultural patterns in both developed and developing countries.

One dilemma is that many developing countries are currently locked into globalized trade and commodity export economies, with some like the BRICs on the cusp of industrialization. These countries are experiencing rising energy demand, and while some increasingly rely on hydroelectric energy, most are producing a rising share of greenhouse gases through use of fossil fuels, deforestation, agricultural, industrial, mining, and transportation activities. Small economies such as Kiribati are dependent on more local or regional activities, but others live from global tourism. All island and low-lying nations are facing the challenge of implementing mitigation or adaptation measures to address climate change lapping at their doorsteps.

When former president Tong speaks of the need for Kiribati to embrace “extraordinary and unconventional solutions” to face the challenges, he is simultaneously calling for world creativity to collectively address a global problem. We have enough scientific reports on climate change to fill a barn or two, and now we have concrete pledges to reduce emissions. But pledges remain pledges on paper unless individual countries and all stakeholders act. The stakes for our future are high and demand that we do not approach this problem with a business as usual mindset, but rather combine innovative ideas with follow through on implementation and enforcement of action.

Funding or lack thereof as well as access to technology are issues that affect the ability of vulnerable island nations and developing countries (including those with already sizeable greenhouse gas emissions) to follow through with the necessary actions. Where are these funds likely to come from? They can come from national sources, international organizations, corporations, and developed countries. However, since developed countries are also worried about shoring up their coastal areas and responding to high intensity storms or droughts, they are more likely to use funds to address problems at home and voter concerns first. While high-tech and costly capital investments and some policy shifts are already evident in Holland, Venice, London, Germany, and the United States, Kiribati and other vulnerable nations around the world continue to plead for climate justiceand lobby for higher allocations of funds and access to technology from industrialized countries.

Mr. Tong’s remarks point to Kiribati’s willingness to do its part through closing off 11 percent of its Exclusive Economic Zone, and consider floating islands and out-migration as the ultimate backup plan. This begs the question of where the possible safe zones for climate change migrants might be, not only for those from Kiribati, but also from other endangered developing countries. Mr. Tong calls the backup plan “migration with dignity.” However, the recent backlash in Europe against the flow of migrants fleeing war, droughts, and political turmoil in the Middle East and some parts of Africa could be serve to dampen optimism for this idea.

Bottom line: if sufficient funds are not made available today to help vulnerable nations cope with the crisis, there is likely to be a boomerang effect tomorrow, as refugees desperately look for places to run to. This issue brings home the point that on a global scale, climate change is not only about physical i.e., geographic or socio-economic impacts in far-flung places like Kiribati or vulnerable areas in developed countries. It is also about possible international political fallout and conflicts, global security issues, and real or perceived biases or barriers to the plight of the most vulnerable (and often the poorest) world citizens affected by climate change.

We have the scientific evidence, we have the pledges, and we also have the lessons learned from past millennia on the impacts of unsustainable use of natural resources, whether through the effects of erosion and deforestation in Easter Island, irrigation in Sumeria, or fall of the Mayan and other civilizations. In the past, it could be argued that many societies were not able to appreciate the impacts of ongoing environmental destruction in their societies. However, in this millennium, as Mr. Tong says, we are the new “living witnesses of the progressive destruction” of many homelands in our times. We already know the problems facing Kiribati, the Maldives, the Marshall Islands, the Caribbean, New Orleans, Miami, Bangladesh, the Arctic, and many other places on the planet. These events are no longer theoretical or buried in scientific reports. They reinforce the notion that we must do all we can to at least honor the Paris pledges (and even strive for more) to move forward, in the words of ex-president Tong, “leaving no one behind.”

Dr. Camille Gaskin-Reyes is an adjunct professor at the Center for Latin American Studies in the Walsh School of Foreign Service. She specializes in development policy and practice in Latin America and the Caribbean with special emphasis on sustainable development, natural resource, and water management as well as urban planning and municipal development strategies.

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