A death sentence for Pacific Islanders

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It is no longer a “hidden cost” of climate change. Climate refugees have become very real and very desperate.

by Jay Fletcher
Green Left weekly, 24 January 2010

A global temperature rise of 2° Celsius — the target set at the United Nations climate summit in Copenhagen in December — is a death sentence for Tuvalu.

It means disaster for the 12 thousand people living there — plus those in other low-lying Pacific Island nations — who will be subject to relentless sea-level rises in coming decades.

Already, with the present 0.8°C rise since pre-industrial times, swelling tides flood the streets, ruin houses, destroy aquifers and crops, kill fish and wildlife, and the incidence of water-borne diseases is increasing.

“We have nowhere to run because our islands are tiny”, Tuvaluan Prime Minister Apisai Ielemia said at Copenhagen: “There is no mountain we can climb up, there is no other inland where we can run to.”

The people of Tuvalu know that hope is fading. Prior to Copenhagen, the Tuvaluan government commissioned its own scientific studies on the impacts of climate change. It found a peak of below 1.5°C is the only option for a chance at survival.

Tuvalu was among numerous nations calling for deep emissions cuts at Copenhagen. Yet the failure of the so-called world leaders to see past greed, self-interest and the powerful fossil fuel lobby has left nations like Tuvalu, Fiji, the Solomon Islands, the Marshall Islands, the Maldives and the Carterets of Papua New Guinea with the prospect of total immersion.

But rising seas is not the only result of climatic change forcing people to flee their homelands in search of less hostile environments. A 1999 International Red Cross report said up to 25 million people had already fled from places blighted not by war, but by environmental destruction.

Drought and spreading deserts are devastating communities across the globe. Unprecedented floods, cyclones, tsunamis and other extreme weather disasters have killed hundreds of thousands and left many more people completely destitute.

For most, the horror story ends with evacuation, leaving their land forever.

But finding somewhere to go, to seek asylum and refuge in a safe country, is the side of the story most often ignored by wealthy First World nations.

Not only is the urgent need to recognise and accept climate refugees denied, restrictions on migration are getting tougher and attacks on refugee rights are intensifying across the world.

The Australian government is among the most criminal in this category. It has used the recent rise in boats, carrying asylum seekers from war-torn countries such as Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, to breed fear and distrust of refugees.

It locks them up on Christmas Island and has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on border patrol measures to stop anyone from even getting close.

Recent defence papers from Australia, as well as the United States, have included chapters outlining ways the military could be used if conflict breaks out because of “the security impacts of climate change and resource scarcity”.

Building a fortress and fuelling fears of “human tsunamis” is a racist and inhumane reaction to a growing crisis.

Even the most optimistic predictions for the planet mean a rise of climate refugees in the hundreds of millions. Based on science from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the Environmental Justice Foundation said in November the number could reach 150 million by 2050, and that 500 to 600 million people could actually be at risk. In a report released on December 8, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) said 25 million to 1 billion people could be displaced by climate change by mid-century. It noted the lower prediction was based on out-of-date science. Twenty million people were displaced by environmental disasters in 2008 alone, it said.

The shocking numbers tell only half the story. The countries facing the worst effects of climate change include Bangladesh, Kenya, Somalia, Yemen, Ethiopia, Chad and Rwanda — poor nations already struggling with scarcity and famine, and with very little ability to mitigate climate change, adapt to it, or even relocate.

It is certainly beyond the means of many to make it to wealthier countries.

The IOM report said many future climate refugees will flee to other poor countries already suffering pressures from climate change and instability, such as Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Central America, and parts of west Africa and southeast Asia.

The numbers include a large proportion of people internally displaced, moving from drought-stricken rural areas into already crowded cities, for example, or seeking places to live less affected by worsening weather patterns.

But the breaking point for many of these countries is getting closer. The IOM research showed the number of people affected by environment disasters has more than doubled within 20 years.

The November 3 British Guardian said Bangladesh had suffered 70 climate-related disasters in the last 10 years.

Environmental disasters will kill more and bring greater destruction to lower-income and underdeveloped areas of the world. The estimated 200,000 death toll in Haiti is a stark example.

The UN Department of Economic and Home Affairs said 95% of all deaths from natural disasters occur in the Third World. The “flood disaster risk index”, it said, was “26 times higher for low income than for high income countries”.

As these disasters increase in frequency and intensity, the areas of land that become permanently uninhabitable will increase as well. The lower latitudes of the planet, inhabited by much of the global South, will be affected worst and first.

But it will soon become a global problem and the number of climate refugees will not stop multiplying. It is no longer a “hidden cost” of climate change. Climate refugees have become very real and very desperate.

The efforts of the Pacific Island states are now being watched by the world. In 2008, the people of the low-lying Carteret Islands began a relocation project to Bougainville, at a cost of millions of dollars.

Tuvalu made a plea to the Australian government as early as 2000 to accept its people if their island became uninhabitable. But the then Liberal/National Coalition government refused to consider taking in refugees displaced by rising seas.

However, the current ALP government’s actions at Copenhagen were arguably much worse. While taking part in the effort to ensure no targets, emissions cuts or binding agreements were made at all, it secretly bullied the poorer nations that argued for a 1.5°C cap.

After such a monstrous display, to accept climate refugees would be to acknowledge total and unmitigated failure to take serious action on climate change. True international action must include a massive transfer of funds to countries to allow them to adapt and cope with climate change.

But nations like Australia need to throw open their doors and pay for the mass relocation of people who now have no choice but to abandon their homes to survive.

At Copenhagen the countries with the most at stake pushed for the strongest action. It was rich and greedy countries like Australia that cruelly condemned them to devastation — while building walls at home to stop them seeking refuge.

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