[Youth Delegate Blog] Canada at a Crossroads: Time to take action for climate migrants

Written by Alexandra Ages 


This year, myself and a number of other young people from across British Columbia had the incredible opportunity to attend the High Level Political Forum (HLPF), an annual conference on sustainable development. The HLPF took place from Tuesday, 9 July, to Thursday, 18 July 2019 at the United Nations Headquarters in New York. Our group served as youth delegates with BCCIC. As an attendee at the HLPF, two particular Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) stood out to me as a focal point of various events. Amid a variety of different side events and formal proceedings, Goal 13 [Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts] and Goal 16 [Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels] seemed to be on a collision course. Despite the fact that both goals highlight the need for coordinated action to ensure a sustainable future for people and the planet, various nations raised the urgent need to address the growing issue of climate migrants

The Issue at Hand

Globally, there are 70.8 million people who have been forcibly displaced. That’s almost double the population of Canada. Of those, internally displaced people make up the majority at roughly 41.3 million. Overall, the number of displaced people worldwide has virtually doubled since 2012. 

In all likelihood, the number of forcibly displaced peoples will continue to rise. Now, however, the causes of mass-displacement will be increasingly due to climate disasters, and the conflicts that invariably follow, rather than simply being due to conflicts themselves. In India, the metropolis of Chennai, with a population of 10 million people, is running out of water. Earlier this year, roughly 3 million people in Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe were affected by Cyclone Idai. The damages are expected to cost $2 billion. Other slower-acting disasters are also taking place. Small Island Developing States such as the Republic of Maldives, Vanuatu, and Kiribati, among others, facing a future of non-existence due to rising sea levels.  

Of all of these disasters, there are two commonalities present: 

  1. The disaster is one clearly connected to climate change; and
  2. The nation(s) affected are classified as ‘developing.’ 

Across the world, the effects of climate change have become readily apparent. Yet, for the most part it is the Global South that is facing the most devastating consequences. Europe, currently undergoing a sweltering heatwave, largely has the infrastructure needed to aid the majority of the population (though of course, many from marginalized communities remain at risk). Still facing the ongoing ramifications of colonization, imperialism, and resource-exploitation at the hands of ‘developed’ nations, however, the Global South has no such security blanket. For those individuals affected by disasters, migration then becomes the best option for survival. 

At the HLPF, this issue came up time and time again. Both in the context of Goal 13 and of Goal 16, individuals, organizations, and entire nations recognized the threat that mass-migration posed to international security. Millions, if not billions of people on the move who all seekout extremely limited resources and move between nations and continents, can be a massive threat to global security. 

It doesn’t have to be, however. 

We, the citizens of developed nations, have an unprecedented degree of privilege in the face of climate change. Our countries are the largest producers of greenhouse gasses and the greatest consumers of natural resources, yet we face relatively minor consequences of climate change. In large part, we also accept far less refugees than our Global South counterparts. 

Adaptive and Mitigative Responses

Our approach to the crisis of climate migrants must reflect this privilege. It should recognize that, as the ones who have largely created the climate crisis, the responsibility lies with the Global North to solve it. 

There are a number of steps that ‘developed’ nations can currently take to address the growing climate migrant issue. Some of these are mitigative, whereas some are adaptive. 

First, we should invest into ‘developing’ nations. It is critical that investment into the infrastructure of ‘developing’ nations be led by the stakeholders themselves, and that outside agencies and ‘developed’ nations allow communities on the ground to take the lead. Funding and support can ideally be channelled through grassroots organizations on the ground. One example is Mikoko Pamoja, a community-led mangrove conservation and restoration project based in southern Kenya. Otherwise,if that is not possible, funding can come from organizations such as the United Nations Development Program, which supports initiatives such as the Vanuatu Coastal Adaptation Project (VCAP). Most critically, nations in the Global North can, should, and must take proactive steps to immediately reduce our own carbon footprint. This can be achieved by doing things such as ending subsidies for fossil fuels, implementing carbon taxes, and refraining from investing in infrastructure such as pipelines.  

Alongside efforts to mitigate the impacts of climate change, nations such as Canada can take adaptive measures to support climate migrants. Investment into programs that support local integration of climate migrants into neighboring nations is one such adaptive measure. This could relieve the  economic pressure of ‘developing’ countries that currently support, or likely will support, large numbers of climate migrants. Another step is expanding legislation surrounding eligibility requirements for the country of asylum class. Currently, it states that to qualify one must be “seriously and personally affected armed conflict or massive violations of human rights,” in order to encapsulate environmental disaster and/or conflicts deriving from climate change as viable qualifiers for asylum seeker status. 

Lastly, developed nations should seek to change international refugee law, which does not currently recognize climate migrants as refugees

Why We Should Act Now

The primary reason for supporting international development and changing legislation is that it is unequivocally the right thing to do. We must take responsibility for our role in climate change.orally, we should strive to ensure that our fellow humans, no matter their nation of origin, are safe, secure, and able to meet their basic needs. If, however, morality is not enough, then there are clear economic and security reasons for addressing the issue of climate migrants now; it is a lot more cost-effective to invest into programming that seeks to mitigate climate change in developing nations now than it will be to spend billions addressing a migration crisis ten years down the line.  At the same time,it will be far more effective to create a framework to aid climate migrants now than to face a critical global security crisis later on. 

At the HLPF, Goals 13 and 16 were brought up time and time again in the context of climate migrants. However, a few panel discussions is far from an adequate response to a crisis capable of affecting billions. Canada is at a crossroads, and now is our time to decide whether we take urgent action to help climate migrants who are currently in need, or if we postpone action to a decade from now, when the time for truly effective solutions is long since over. 

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