Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Preparing for a Changed World

I posted a couple of weeks ago about the recent Woodbrooke course, 'Good Lives: Preparing for a Changed World', and mentioned the talk on the Saturday morning of that event, given by Oliver Robertson from QUNO Geneva. Here is the text of the talk he gave us.

The way the world will change in the future is a big subject, so this post will focus just on a couple of areas – climate change and the movement of people, and climate change and peace and conflict. Moreover, everything about the future in this post is guesswork. Educated guesses perhaps, but guesses all the same. When people’s guesses turn out to be correct, they get called a savant and if they’re wrong, they get called an idiot. So you may have over 1,500 words of pure idiocy coming at you.

Possibly the most important thing to say is this: most of the changes that will likely be caused by climate change will not be new. The types of things that will happen have already happened, are already happening, which means, critically, that we also have many of the solutions.

Climate change and the movement of people

You may have heard of ‘climate refugees’. It’s a phrase which is, on the face of it, self-explanatory: people who have been forced to move because of the impacts of climate change. However, when you look at it you do realise that it’s more complicated than it may seem at first blush.

For a start, there’s the numbers. A few years ago there was a rash of reports highlighting the issue and giving estimates of the likely scale of the situation. The numbers of affected people ranged from 25 million to one billion (though this large number was people affected rather than people moving). There are some methodological issues with this and many of the different numbers can be traced back to the same one or two sources, and nowadays researchers tend not to predict numbers but just to look at likely effects and impacts.

Secondly, there’s the difference between slow-onset and sudden-onset situations. Slow-onset impacts are gradual environmental changes such as sea level rise, regions becoming unbearably warm, desertification and salinisation; sudden-onset impacts are hurricanes, floods and other natural disasters. These are very different issues requiring very different responses. Sudden-onset is easier to see, though there is an expectation that slow-onset changes will affect more people.

Thirdly, there is the causation issue – how can we know that this Superstorm or that sea level rise would not have happened without climate change? And if a farmer’s crops fail, is this because of climate change or because she’s a bad farmer? If she can build an irrigation system, what then? The causation issue becomes a particular sticking point when you are trying to create legal obligations to help, such as creating a group of ‘climate refugees’ that governments should support. In addition, the phrase ‘climate refugee’ is disliked around the UN because in international law a refugee is something quite specific. It is someone who has crossed an international border and sought protection due to a well-founded fear of persecution on the grounds of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. The environment doesn’t persecute in the same way, and politically there is a lot of fear about trying to redefine what a refugee is because it could well lead to a weakening of existing protection.

So instead the international approach is to look at soft law – non-binding standards which are frameworks of how to deal with environmental displacement. This is what was done with internal displacement and is the way things are going with other human rights or humanitarian issues. Last year the Norwegian government proposed a set of ‘Nansen Principles’ on displacement in situations of natural disasters, but they didn’t generate the hoped-for interest. So now, together with the Swiss, they have a Nansen Initiative, which is conducting research on the environmental displacement, and may later produce some recommendations based on these findings.

But why try to create a new category of ‘climate displaced persons’ at all? I think one of the reasons is that people want to move environmentally displaced persons from the category of ‘bad’ migrants (people moving to get a better job or lifestyle) to ‘good’ migrants (like refugees, though even they get a bad press these days). But it creates its own problems – what if that farmer I mentioned before had lost their crops because they’re a bad farmer? Are they not equally desperate? Are they any less deserving, any less worthy? (That is a slightly open question.) I think we’ll continue having these difficulties while we continue to categorise people into deserving and undeserving, rather than needy and unneedy. When I was in Oslo at the meeting where the Nansen Principles were created, the most interesting thing I found out was that after the first world war, when the Norwegian Fritdjof Nansen was the first high commissioner for refugees under the old League of Nations, a refugee was anyone in humanitarian need. I think this is one reason for the disconnect between the public perception of a refugee (people fleeing and in need) and the lawyers’ understanding (people meeting the Refugee Convention requirements), but it’s also a very helpful rebuttal to anyone who tells you that ‘we can’t change things and this is the way things are’. Not always they weren’t.

While most migration-related issues will not be new, one which might be is what are commonly called sinking islands, though a more accurate phrase is drowning islands. There are a number of nation-states, including the Maldives and Tuvalu, which are expected to completely lose all their land in the coming decades, and as one of the traditional features of a country is that it has land, this is could cause legal and well as human problems. There are some ideas about ways to circumvent this issue, such as buying up other land/islands (I understand that the Maldives has been speaking to India about this) or claiming that a country’s underwater continental shelf means it still has land. Politically, there is a feeling in some quarters that the world won’t be so vicious as to tell people who’ve just lost all their land that they no longer exist as a nation. But this could be a situation that gets ignored when it could be solved, where because we don’t have to deal with it yet, we won’t.

It can be easy in this issue to focus on the politics not the people. On the low-lying islands, people will have left before the last rock disappears under the waves permanently. Where to? That depends, and is an issue beyond small islands. The consensus is that most people will not come ‘flooding’ to Europe but will instead move a short distance. Particularly when there are sudden-onset disasters, people may return home, and displacement (whether for sudden-onset or slow-onset reasons) isn’t always permanent – some areas may be unable to support a population year-round, so circular or seasonal migration could be a more sustainable response.

It can be easy to consider the people who are moving, but it is also important to consider those who remain behind and the existing residents of host communities. People who stay behind may want to leave but be unable to do so. Often it is the poorest and most vulnerable who are left – think of Hurricane Katrina and who was left behind in New Orleans. Other times people may not want to leave – I remember hearing about one man who said “I can’t leave this island: this is where my father is buried”. At the other side, considering the hosts, who will also have needs, rights and concerns, will hopefully help to reduce levels of conflict and ensure a better outcome for everyone.

Climate change, conflict and cooperation

The other issue we have looked at is what often gets called ‘climate change and conflict’, the idea that the impacts of climate change, such as reductions in availability of natural resources like water, food or land, will cause more conflict. There have been retrospective studies about whether one or more wars were caused, ultimately, by the environment – Darfur was the one that received the most attention. However, one of the most significant differences between the study which found that the environment was to blame for Africa’s wars and the one that found the opposite was that they gave different weightings and importance to different factors when creating their computer models. Each thought that different things were important in predicting conflict. More generally, I think that the link between climate change and a particular conflict will probably never be drawn with certainty, not least because that won’t be the stated reason for the conflict: I think there will always be something more proximate, more immediate. “They have all the best land” might be a way of whipping up tension and encouraging violent conflict, but “Their economic and industrial policies have resulted in the gradual reduction of our soil quality” probably isn’t.

However, like the stoking of concerns about the ‘floods’ of climate refugees coming to Britain, warnings of ‘water wars’ have not gone unnoticed and climate change is on the radars of militaries in various countries, including in the UK’s 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review. At the Quaker United Nations Office we have tried to break this idea of a straight line going from climate change to conflict, and have looked at what has actually happened in the past. There are plenty of places in the world with existing resource scarcity, where there is – to use the issue we explored – limited water, but actually in reality not all of them are in conflict. Researchers in the University of Oregon looked at over 1,800 international water events and found that only 28% of them involved any conflict at all, most of which was verbal rather than physical. The only recorded water war in history was between the city-states of Lagash and Umma around 2500 BCE. However, there is a school of thought that because water is so crucial to life, it may be too important to fight over. Also, we have been looking at the international situation and at the regional or community level things may be very different. Colleagues of mine are looking into this right now, so this is not yet resolved.

This issue of environment and peace is one which has sparked the interest of many Quakers. In fact, I think that you are particularly likely to find Quakers working on the climate change and peace issue, because it’s at the meeting point between an issue of longstanding Quaker concern (peace) and an emerging one (climate change).

To be clear, I am not saying that bad things will not happen, and I am not saying that things won’t get worse. But I am saying that the human impacts of climate change depend in part on human actions and choices. I am saying that we have many of the answers to these problems already. And I am saying that even if we don’t stop climate change from happening, it doesn’t mean we’re powerless in the face of its consequences.

Many thanks to Oliver for sharing this text.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Oliver, a really interesting piece. Lots of food for thought, not least because I'm starting to research this area from a philosophical perspective. An interesting book I've come across is 'Global Justice and Territory' by Cara Nine. At the end of her book, she specifically addresses the question of ecological refugees from a sinking island state, and argues that they would be justified in seeking sovereignty of a new piece of territory.