Climate Change and Human Rights: The Imperative for Climate Change Migration with Dignity (CCMD)
This column by David Ritter is part of Global Policy’s e-book, ‘Climate Change and Human Rights: The 2015 Paris Conference and the Task of Protecting People on a Warming Planet’, edited by Marcello Di Paola and Daanika Kamal. Contributions from academics and practitioners will be serialised on Global Policy until the e-book’s release in November 2015. Find out more here or join the debate on Twitter using #GPclimatechange.
All international human rights instruments are products of their historical circumstances. When the global framework for protecting refugees was established in the context of the Second World War, the notion that the world would be contemplating mass-displacement of people caused by physical forces unleashed by unintended alterations to the chemical composition of the atmosphere, incidental to industrial society, would likely have been considered as fanciful. And a legally binding human rights instrument to protect people against the impacts of climate change does not currently exist.
Given that the impacts of climate change are already upon us, and that things can be expected to worsen considerably even if stay within less than two degrees of global warming (always more a political than a scientifically mandated limit, in any case), it is now inevitable that large numbers of people will be driven away from their homes by consequences of climate change. The global nature of the problem and the lack of any current international apparatus for addressing climate change migration means it is essential that a legal framework and institutional mechanism are established as soon as possible.
A substantial number of high level political calls have already been made for action. In 2009, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina called upon the UN General Assembly to consider adopting a legal course that would ensure the social, cultural and economic rehabilitation of environmental degradation and climate-change induced migrants. She repeated the call at the Copenhagen climate talks in December that year. Just a few weeks ago, I attended the Coalition of Low Lying Atoll Nations on Climate Change (CANCC) ‘High Level Meeting on Climate Induced Migration’ in Kiribati, which was co-convened by HE President Anote Tong and HRH Prince Albert II of Monaco. The leaders of Pacific Island nations who were present stressed that the key doctrine underpinning a global framework must be ‘migration with dignity.’ The Outcomes Document notes that ‘climate change is a major universal calamity which knows no boundary and which requires urgent global solutions.’ The Outcomes Document also contains an appeal to the international community and development partners to demonstrate greater political will and leadership that is critical for the very survival of affected nations and vulnerable peoples from around the world.
There was a clear juxtaposition at the meeting between the studied inadequacy of the responses from the representatives of the governments of Australia and New Zealand, and the determined urgency of the Heads of State and other representatives from low lying Pacific Island nations. But it was notable that this meeting took place only few days after the political demise of Prime Minister Tony Abbott of Australia. As the richest and most powerful country in the region with a lot at stake strategically, Australia has a special interest and obligation to lead on a solution for Pacific Islanders displaced by climate change. As one of the highest per capita emitters of greenhouse gases and the second largest exporter of coal in the world, Australia is also an oversized contributor to the problem. Australia should thus acknowledge a special obligation to our neighbours and partners in the Pacific on this issue; something that the Abbott Government egregiously failed to do. It is to be hoped that the new Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull will make a decisive break with his predecessor on this issue.
Undoubtedly, establishing economic pathways for labour mobility will be an important tool in creating options for people from those nations most vulnerable to climate change. A landmark UN multi-agency project has been doing very important data-collection and idea-generation work in this regard in the Pacific. Yet it is also important that there is no discursive sleight of hand here that allows the operative ideology of neo-liberalism to redefine the inescapable impacts of structural forces as autonomous individual choices. People who are losing their homes as a consequence of climate change should not be conceptualised as self-maximising rational actors. If your home is facing inundation, the notion of real choice is illusory.
The concept of climate change migration with dignity (CCMD) is yet to be authoritatively defined. In order to satisfy the requirement of dignity, CCMD would need to reflect criteria which includes being legal, planned, orderly, safe, timely and respectful. The rules and apparatus of a system for CCMD should be negotiated cooperatively and in advance, with migrant and recipient nations participating in respectful partnership. The basic ethical underpinning – that the most vulnerable nations to rising sea levels and other impacts of climate change are also often among the poorest in the world, which have made the least historical contribution to the growth of emissions – is complemented by the realpolitik that it is in the interests of less vulnerable developed countries to establish solutions in advance, rather than waiting for the migratory destabilization induced by large-scale climate disasters.
Already, the world’s system of protection for displaced persons is in crisis. Almost sixty million people currently meet the criteria of displacement – the highest number since the end of the Second World War. The influx of people to Europe fleeing the Syrian Civil War and other instability and conflict in the Middle East is the most high profile manifestation of what is a deeply complex and multivalent global problem. In this context, it is imperative to make climate migration a matter of global priority. The primary response must still be to swiftly and effectively reduce global emissions as much as possible. However, given that some climate change migration is by now inevitable, it is both morally imperative and in everyone’s interests to establish binding global principles and institutional apparatus to facilitate CCMD as a matter of the highest priority. The timely establishment of an effective global framework for climate change migration with dignity could yet become a beacon of successful international cooperation in the twenty first century.
David Ritter is the Chief Executive Officer of Greenpeace Australia Pacific, an Honorary Fellow of the Faculty of Law of the University of Western Australia and an Associate of the Institute for Democracy and Human Rights at the University of Sydney.