A brief account of what it means to be displaced by climate change-related events.
You have probably noticed that these past months have been warmer than usual. I am sure it happened to you - as it happened to me- to start realizing that the end of September, and then the end of October was approaching….yet, the temperatures didn’t decrease accordingly.
This extremely worrisome increase of temperature is definitely a problem for the environment, and we should definitely be worried about it. And probably start to use our political influence - mainly expressed through the powerful act of casting a ballot or by virtue of being part of civil society- to act upon it.
However, us- as people who live in the Western hemisphere- also have the privilege not to do anything about the very weirdly warm Sunday afternoon at the end of October.
This is not the case for other fellow human beings.
So, let me tell you another story.
I don’t know if you knew, but there are beautiful countries out there- often very small and very often not financial powerhouses- that are defined as Small Island Developing States (or SIDS).
They are a very diverse group of countries, which includes countries like Cabo Verde - mostly known for its music and for being a surfer paradise - to Haiti, or again Fiji, Cook Islands, but also Singapore, just to name a very limited few.
They are a group of fifty states scattered around the world, but - as you can see from the map- mostly concentrated in the South Pacific Region.
You are probably still confused regarding what I am talking about and how these states are related to your sunny Sunday afternoon.
Well, this is understandable as often those states are mainly brought to media attention in Western countries for their heavenly beaches. In our imagination, they are a far-off paradise- where most of us will never set foot.
Yet, while you don’t share their privileged access to cristaline beaches; I think it is important for you to know that the inhabitants of those islands don’t share your privilege of not paying attention to climate change.
Thus, climate change does not only manifest itself with increased temperature, but also with higher occurrence of sea-level rises, salinification of water, increased prevalence of hurricanes, typhoons and other catastrophic events.
But at this point, you may still ask yourself what this has to do with our current discussion.
Well, unfortunately the implications are several. First of all, in several countries like Fiji, many communities live by the sea. For them, the water has been a source of life for centuries. Yet, precisely that sea is rising to alarming levels, endangering the livelihoods of thousands of people. Think, for example, about your parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, and imagine that your whole family lived in close-knit and peaceful communities in simple houses for centuries, living in complete harmony with nature. Now imagine that, as a result of an industrialization that occurred in some far-off land, of which you didn’t even reap the fruits, is seriously preventing you from continuing your life. At this point the government steps in because it has to do everything in its power to prevent its population from being submerged by water. Different strategies are implemented. Some governments, such as the one in Fiji, has drafted a National Adaptation Plan, whereby funding are devoted to “relocate” people who lived in coastal communities to other areas of the country that are farther away from the sea. Guess what, now these people have become Internally Displaced Persons, in the sense that they had to leave their ancestral land because it was no longer safe to stay there. But again, these people have lived in complete synergy with the sea for centuries. They paid their full respect to it, and in exchange it gave them nourishment.
Now, these Fijians will have to adapt completely to a new life-syle, which will certainly prove a traumatic experience. They will be separated from the rest of the community members they used to live side by side with, breaking ties. They will have to change their diet and learn to produce different foods. They will be exposed to a completely different lifestyle, which may result in alcoholism, mental health issues or violence.
Another even more striking example is that of Tuvalu
Needless to say that the people there have lived in complete harmony with nature for centuries, until climate change happened. Again, needless to say that the alarming levels of climate change that is witnessing the world today have not been caused by the inhabitants of Tuvalu. Yet, their government has negotiated migration rights with New Zealand. Do you know what that means? It means something truly tragic; that is that the people in Tuvalu are aware of the fact that at some point their entire country will disappear underwater and the only option left to them is to migrate somewhere else. Now, imagine if this happened to you.
Unfortunately, however, what I just discussed does not only apply to Small Island Developing States. I don’t know how frequently you check the news; but the chances that you came across that occurred in Pakistan are very high. You probably saw the images of destruction brought about by heavy floods.
What happened in Pakistan - which is home to 213,222,917 people - is a direct result of climate change. Now, in Pakistan, there is a situation whereby thousands of people no longer have a house because of these heavy rains.
Yet, there is even worse news. Pakistan is only a recent example of destruction caused by climate change and one that got a great deal of media attention. However, as you might imagine, it is by no means the only one- as you have probably also inferred from my previous discussion on Small Island Developing States - but, crucially, it will not be the last. If we do not do something now - which may include, not is not limited to, really decreasing CO2 emissions, truly committing to stop global temperatures from rising and so on - this is pretty much how our future will look like.
Before concluding the present discussion, I would like to draw your attention to some hard data about global warming and its human-related consequences, so that we can gain a better understanding.
The UNHCR, which is a United Nations Agency dealing with refugees has estimated that in 2019, 25 million people across 140 countries were displaced due to weather-related events. Just to be sure, Chile has a population of 19 million and Portugal 10 million. It is further estimated that 200 million people will be displaced by 2050 if the current climate trends continue. Just to give you an idea, this is roughly equivalent to the whole population of Brazil being displaced by climate change.
Now, to clarify further, it is important to mention that climate-related events have two aspects. On the one hand, climate-change can cause temperatures and sea-levels to rise, but also fires, hurricanes and storms whose strength is unprecedented. People whose house catches fire are automatically displaced. Moreover, however, increased temperatures or changes in precipitation patterns leads to food insecurity ; which, in turn, leads to more competition over scarce resource, and hence conflict. This has been the case among Rohingya refugees in Myanmar or in the Sahel region in West Africa.
But, if it still is a bit unclear why this matters to us, let me introduce to you an Italian guy, who is unfortunately very representative of broader trends in politics.
So this guy is called Matteo Salvini and is a nationalist Italian politician from the far-right party the League, who is now in power (sic). He once made the argument in public television that he was willing to accept into the country only refugees stricto-sensus, that is people who run away from wars. Just to be clear - he completely made up the definition of refugee stricto-sensus to suit his political agenda - but that’s beyond the point. He also went on arguing that neither Italy nor other European countries can accept (and, unfortunately, I am quoting verbatim), people who migrate just because they are a bit hot in their home countries. Aside from the appalling rhetoric of his discourse, I hope this article clarifies what’s wrong with what he said. And why it is important to take action now.
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Linda is a Master's student in International Development (Concentration: Global Economy and Environment and Sustainability) at Sciences Po, Paris.
She researched and wrote this article as part of the BizGees & Sciences Po Internship programme.