Climate Migrants

At a session I attended late one night recently, I heard His Excellency, Anote Tong, the former president of Kiribati, speak about climate migration and the impact it is having, and will continue to have, on small island states. He said that, to him and his people, climate change isn’t an abstract concept; it is a real phenomenon for vulnerable populations like his own, and that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that even if global temperature rise were limited to 1.5°C, low-lying island countries would still be submerged by water. He has many grandchildren, and is thus always thinking about the future generations. At the very least, Mr. Tong hopes for his people to be able to become “migrants with dignity.” He doesn’t want his people to be refugees, because that implies that no plan was put into place because they were unaware that this event was coming. Since climate change is a slow-onset event, there is more than enough time to come up with a plan for migrating the Kiribati people; there is time to find them a place to go, and provide them with the cultural and educational tools needed for them to assimilate. He hopes for a “beautiful assimilation of people,” where his people are worthwhile citizens wherever they choose to go.
Mr. Tong’s words in the panel discussions really got me thinking about the future of the people of small island states. I’m sure there’s a plan in the works somewhere more important than my credentials as a student researcher will allow me entrance to, but every small island state figure in the Bonn Zone I have asked has said that they don’t have a plan for when their islands are no longer habitable. That point will come long before the island is submerged underwater; erosion, groundwater acidification, and land degradation are problems occurring here and now, and are becoming more prominent as climate change continues on its path. Mr. Tong said the talks at the COP aren’t helpful because they aren’t addressing root problems for the people in danger. He is right; the panels I’ve seen have been more about people from small island states espousing the devastating effects they’re feeling and will feel while individuals from scientific organizations spout figures and facts about who will be displaced, rather than about discovering concrete solutions to these concrete problems.
Mr. Tong made an analogy in his presentation that I think is worth sharing: He compared the action of industrialized countries for helping climate refugees to a neighbor chopping down a tree so that it falls onto the home of the other neighbor, destroying their home, and then asking the now homeless neighbor what they plan on doing about the situation. Industrialized countries need to be held accountable for their actions, and not be permitted to allow their burdens to impact vulnerable populations who didn’t contribute to the problem at all. Otherwise, there is no incentive for them to stop or even reduce greenhouse gas emissions – accountability truly is key to causing a decrease in GHG emissions and to helping climate migrants.
Even as problems are being addressed, the focus of the discussions are far more on what individuals from small island states should do to help themselves, rather than how the international community can help. This is both ironic and strange because small island states were put into this position by industrialized countries emitting greenhouse gases and raising the global average surface temperature. Those nations aren’t considering the futures of their grandchildren, and are focusing too heavily on economic profit in the present, when they should instead be focusing on the actions to take now that will ensure the survival of future generations, from all nation-states. Little work is being done in the U.S. to assist these vulnerable populations who will need to migrate within the century, if not sooner, and the current administration will most certainly make even less progress for the cause. Many of the discussions I’ve been to have made clear that progress can be made without the government’ the government is only one way, not the only way, to make change and assist people in need. We cannot continue to simply sit back, create emissions that have real repercussions for other people in other countries, and then ask those suffering populations how they plan to fix it. That is why I implore you, the reader, to consider how you can help. Could you, perhaps, reduce your individual carbon footprint by turning off the lights more, or by investing in eco-friendly products? Could you walk more or use public transportation instead of driving your own car? Could you donate time or resources towards refugee resettlement agencies or an organization that assists climate migrants? What can you do to help? I believe it is our collective responsibility to help our brothers and sisters around the world; wouldn’t you agree?