Human Rights Salon Day Two: Climate Refugees

Everyday this week a distinguished group of panelists will respond to an idea submitted to On Day One, a website that asks users for their ideas on what the next president can do, on day one. Our theme this week is human rights and On Day One user Nick Robson wants the next president to focus on climate refugees.

Rising sea level caused by anthropomorphic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions will have a huge impact in Small Islands Developing States and coastal dwellers globally. It could be argued that for the majority of these people, certainly those in the less developed world who have not contributed significantly to GHG output, have a right to continue to live in their ancestral home. Their forced evacuation caused by sea level rise could be said to be a abuse of their human rights. How can we help them?

Micheal Bear Kleinman, Eric Schwartz and Emily Holland respond below the fold. Michael Bear Kleinman:

First, to get the discussion started, I’m surprisingly wary of describing the impacts of climate change — people forced to flee their homes due to rising sea levels — as a human rights issue. It’s certainly a catastrophe, but does every catastrophe imply a human rights violation? When we can point to direct individual or even governmental intention in the deprivation of “the right to life, liberty and security of person,” as defined by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, then the answer seems clearly yes. Hence the recent charges ICC charges against Omar Bashir, for his role in stoking and fueling the conflict in Darfur. On the other hand, I wouldn’t describe natural disasters such as the 2005 Indian Ocean tsunami, or the Pakistan earthquake of the same year, as a human rights violation. They’re not caused by individuals or governments, though their prior and subsequent actions can certainly make the situation far worse. The “climate refugees” described by Nick seem to fall somewhere in-between. I don’t think anyone is arguing at this point about causation, at least insofar as a) climate change is impacting weather patterns, including rising sea levels, b) climate change is at least partially caused by human action, and c) some countries produce far more greenhouse gases than others. Yet greenhouse gases weren’t produced with the intention of causing small island developing states to take an Atlantis-like swoon.

If the displacement caused by climate change qualifies as a human rights abuse, then what about American and European trade policies and tariffs, which also have a massive — and often highly disruptive — impact on developing nations? Anyhow, will leave it to those far more versed in human rights to set me straight. As to answer Nick’s actual question, about what we can do to help, one answer is for western donor nations and humanitarian agencies to focus more attention and funding on disaster risk reduction. As defined by the British Department for International Development (DfID), “Disaster risk reduction entails measures to curb disaster losses by addressing hazards and people’s vulnerabilities to them.” In other words, it’s focused on preventive action, as opposed to simply responding after a disaster. (To read more, see the short DfID briefing paper on DDR.) In fact, October 8th was the International Day for Disaster Reduction. This is incredibly important in countries like Bangladesh, where rising waters threaten millions, not to mention the impact of increasingly severe storms, such as Cyclone Sidr from last year. (For an excellent description of these issues, see Nicki Bennett’s posts from Bangladesh following Cyclone Sidr.

Eric Schwartz:

We can help them, it seems to me, in a number of critically important ways —

First, most obviously, we need to establish U.S. leadership in international negotiations on climate change — but it’s not going to happen until we demonstrate to the world that we are prepared to adopt binding national commitments on greenhouse gas reduction. Unfortunately, that’s hardly enough, because climate change is happening fast, with broad reaching impacts no matter what actions on mitigation we take.

So, beyond mitigation, we have to take several measures —

First, by matching rhetorical endorsement of the Hyogo Framework for Action with a real commitment not only to a huge expansion of resources for disaster prevention, both through new international institutions — such as the new World Bank facility established for disaster prevention — and through bilateral donor support. The Hyogo Framework, adopted by governments around the world at a conference in Japan shortly after the Asian tsunami, is a great document — but words on paper don’t mean much if they’re not backed up by real resources.

Second, even with the best efforts at prevention, increased vulnerability to storm surges and other natural hazards means that we must be prepared to ramp up disaster assistance funding, and to work much more closely and cooperatively with the international partners, including UN Office of the Coordinator for Humanitarian Assistance, the World Food Program, UNHCR and others. Unilateral action, or even coalitions of the willing, are bad models for effective disaster response — as we saw in the case of the Asian tsunami, when the Bush Administration quickly reversed its initial decision to work with just a few countries in coordinating humanitarian action and quickly turned to UN agencies.

And third, in the worst of cases, if small island states are at risk of becoming uninhabitable, we must be prepared, and we will be obliged, to support the broadest range of assistance designed to ease whatever transitions these societies must ultimately have to endure.

Emily Holland:

Responding to Michael Kleinman’s posting, in which he encourages humanitarian agencies to focus more attention and funding on disaster risk reduction, I spoke with Sue Dwyer, Vice President of International Programs at the International Rescue Committee. According to Dwyer, humanitarian action in response to climate change requires a two pronged response: 1) mitigation — reducing green house gas emission, and 2) adaptation — minimizing the effects of global warming through Disaster Risk Reduction methodologies (DRR).

Here at the IRC, we’re working to minimize our carbon footprint while at the same time helping communities to increase their adaptive capacities. This means assisting communities in identifying hazards they face due to climate change, determining the probability an incident will occur, and gauging the impact an incident will have on that community. We then help communities assess the social, economic and other human factors that make them vulnerable, how equipped they are to deal with threats, and their ability to reduce the risk they face. Depending on these assessments, the IRC helps communities develop response plans.

A simple formula Dwyer provides to understand the IRC’s approach: risks = hazards x vulnerabilities minus capacities. Continues Dwyer, many disaster prone countries such as Bangladesh have already demonstrated great success in decreasing risk associated with climate change disasters through this process. We need to expand DRR work more globally.

Get occasional updates from UN Dispatch

* indicates required

Our free service for global affairs professionals

  • Want to learn more?