LEAVE NO ONE BEHIND: WE NEED A RIGHTS-BASED APPROACH TO CLIMATE DISPLACEMENT

Anju Anna John Stefano Balbi

      Migration needs to be approached as a form of reparation by countries and businesses that have historically contributed most to the problem we face today.

Republished under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0) from Common Dreams, July 18, 2023 , https://www.commondreams.org/opinion/climate-displacement.

      In 2015, the United Nations Member States agreed to 17 Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, that are rooted in three universal values including a human rights-based approach, ensuring that no one is left behind, and working to eliminate gender inequalities. At the center of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the 17 SDGs is the principle of leave no one behind, or LNOB.

      Although not legally enforceable, LNOB symbolizes a global commitment to reach out to the most marginalized and vulnerable, as we work towards a development that does not adversely affect our planet. It requires that we look for solutions for those most affected by environmental change today before it becomes a ubiquitous problem affecting all of us.

      In this context, a scientific article published in Nature Sustainability in May 2023 by Timothy Lenton (founder of the Global Systems Institute at the University of Exeter) and colleagues estimates future human exposure to unlivable conditions due to climate change in the ranges of 2.0 (± 0.2) billion by 2030 and 3.7 (± 0.4) billion by 2090. In this work, the scientists consider the human cost of climate change as the number of people who would no longer be in the "human climate niche"–a concept that is shaped by the direct effects of climate on humans and the indirect effects on the species and resources that sustain or afflict us. Their analysis tells us that global warming of 0.7°C between 1960 and 1990 has already put around 624 (± 70) million people outside this human climate niche. The change in demography during this period has added another 77 million to this figure.

      In the worst-case future scenario–where the world reverts to fossil-fueled development and has a population of 9.5 billion at the end of the century–the study found that 5.3 (± 0.6) billion people would be left behind. We would then be looking at a world where about half the world's population would no longer be able to live in regions they once considered home.

      Despite the startling figures, this information about environmental change driving migration is not new. As early as 1990, the climate scientists at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had already sounded alarm bells on how "the greatest single impact of climate change" was going to be on human migration, and displacement resulting from shoreline erosion, coastal flooding, agricultural disruption, etc. Twenty years later, at the Cancun Agreement of 2010, the international community finally recognized the issue of "climate change induced displacement, migration, and planned relocation."

      Later, the 2015 Paris agreement set up a Task Force on Displacement. The task force was established with the mandate to "complement, draw upon the work of, and involve... existing bodies and expert groups under the convention... as well as relevant organizations and expert bodies outside of the convention, to develop recommendations for integrated approaches to avert, minimize, and address displacement related to the adverse impacts of climate change."

      Additionally, it was to assist the Executive Committee to implement its five-year work plan on "enhanced cooperation and facilitation in relation to human mobility, including migration, displacement, and planned relocation." The task force is now in Phase 2 and collaborating with experts towards increasing the knowledge base on slow onset events and thematic technical work, while also building capacity. During this time, the U.N. Member States adopted the Global Compact for Migration to support international cooperation on the governance of international migration.

      Despite the latest policy milestones, its execution has been staggered due to a lack of consensus on whether to approach this as a human rights, a security, or a responsibility issue. Decisive action under any of these approaches has largely been hindered by the lack of a clearly recognized definition for the affected individuals. Various studies have reported climate change to be a "threat multiplier" or "a tipping point" to already existing socioeconomic issues. This would mean that the interplay between climate, conflicts, and poverty would work to exacerbate the vulnerability of individuals.

      Still, the decision to migrate is not as straightforward as determining an individual's vulnerability. Complex interconnections between political, economic, social, environmental, and demographic factors affect an individual's decision to migrate. Thus, predicting and attributing responsibilities in the case of migration driven by climate change and environmental factors becomes an onerous task.

Defining Human Migration Due to Environmental Changes

      To begin with, the international bodies are yet to agree on a common term to refer to human mobility affected by global environmental change, with options ranging from "environmentally induced displacement" to "climate migrants." Indeed, the terminology used would have implications for the legal and political policies that are developed: Countries have generally been hesitant to agree on a legally coded label that would hold them responsible for this additional humanitarian crisis. However, states and international institutions have also avoided recognizing climate migrants within existing legal frameworks.

      Leaders of Small Island States like Kiribati have previously expressedtheir distaste for the term "climate refugee" and their unwillingness to be associated with the negative connotation of being victims in need of protection. The government has instead opted to focus on upskilling its citizens, so that they could positively contribute to the places they relocate to. Further, it has also bought 22 square kilometers of land in Fiji, in the hopes that some of its citizens could move there if their lands become uninhabitable.

      Apart from this rationale, Dina Ionesco–the Head of the Migration, Environment, and Climate Change Division at the U.N. Migration Agency–and her team have been working to build an argument to demonstrate how climate change affects human mobility. In her article advocating to term such individuals as "climate migrants" instead of "climate refugees," she points to the key aspects that define climate change-induced human mobility that are crucially different from the understanding of "refugees." Climate migration is mainly taking place within the same state, and migrants do not seek out the protection of another state or the international community. Unlike the situation of refugees (who are generally fleeing war, violence, conflict, or persecution), climate migrants are not necessarily forced to leave and the decision to move is generally by choice. Furthermore, given the difficulty in isolating environmental reasons in an individual's decision to move, the legal procedures might work against the people seeking protection in such situations.

      In its majority opinion in the Individual Complaint by Ioane Teitiota, in September 2020 the Human Rights Committee recognized that climate refugees cannot be returned home. However, in this particular case, the committee believed that sea level rise might only render Kiribati unliveable in 10 to 15 years and this was sufficient time for the government of Kiribati to work with the international community to take protective measures.

      One of the two dissenting opinions distinguishes between the serious situation where there were sufficient protections and a dignified life. The Committee's decision to overlook the existing difficulties in growing crops or accessing safe drinking water and choosing to talk about climate refugees as the reality of humans from a dystopian world in the future is rather callous for a human rights treaty body.

      Thus, we are now living in a time when there is increased acceptance of the fact that climate change will drive increasing populations away from their homes. Surprisingly, we still seem to be naively optimistic in our ability to find a solution in the next 10 to 15 years, despite not having addressed it in the past three decades. And while many on the planet still have the luxury to remain apathetic about environmental changes rendering regions of the world uninhabitable, many are already living in those regions and trying to make the decision to migrate.

Attributing responsibility

      The question then becomes one of attributing responsibility to a state or international agency that should step up and take measures to adapt to this environmental change. In July 2022, the Member States of the United Nations voted to recognize the individual's right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment. However, while the individual might now have this right, the duty-bearer who has the obligation to respect, protect, promote, and fulfill these rights is less clear.

      In the jurisprudence established over the last 30 years, we have come to accept the concept of "Common But Differentiated Responsibilities and Respective Capabilities." It recognizes the different capabilities and duties in combating climate change and the negative effects of it based on an entity's historical contributions and differing capabilities.

      In this context, how does an individual who is highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change find recourse, when their state is not in a position to provide for a dignified life and ensure their right to a "clean, healthy, and sustainable environment"? Who should they turn to for assistance?

      For example, people in Bangladesh are routinely affected by floods, and, despite the government's efforts in disaster mitigation, it has fallen shortof adequately responding to this situation and simply does not have the resources. In such situations, will the international community limit itself to humanitarian assistance after each new natural disaster (which, the scientific community has assured us, will happen with increasing frequency)? Or, will we step up and take measures to find more durable solutions?

      Or, perhaps we will have to wait for the advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice that is currently hearing a motion brought forward by the Republic of Vanuatu seeking clarification on the existing obligation of states to protect future generations against the adverse effects of climate change.

A Human Rights-Based Approach

      Developing a human rights-based approach to the issue of climate change is at the heart of climate justice. It involves working on adaptation for those that are already suffering the consequences of a problem they barely contributed to, even as we work towards reducing global greenhouse gas emissions.

      Another key aspect to consider when looking at migration as adaptation is the inequality in the right to move. As countries from the Global North seek to address the migration "crisis," the solution does not lie in restricting entry and tightening borders (which is rarely effective in curbing migration), but in creating safe and legal channels for migration. Migration needs to be approached as a form of reparation by countries and businesses that have historically contributed most to the problem we face today.

      In a welcome move, researchers are already working towards computing and quantifying the costs and responsibilities of fossil fuel companies and countries. A study by Grasso and Heede published in May 2023 sought to quantify the economic costs owed by fossil fuel businesses for future climate catastrophes expected between 2023 and 2050. Collectively, the estimations for the world's top 21 fossil fuel companies come up to $5.4 trillion in reparations.

      While this article might not generate sufficient political will in addressing this issue by itself, more scientific research that approaches the issue of climate change from a human rights-based perspective is crucial if and when world leaders resolve to take decisive action to address climate justice issues. In the spirit of leaving no one behind, ensuring safe and regular channels for migration as a part of climate change adaptation deserves just as much attention as efforts to cut down on carbon emissions and supporting ecosystems and diversity.