So we have serious complications in the way we deal with humanitarian conflict, regardless whether this is caused by armed conflict, or severe environmental issues.
Biermann: I totally agree. My original idea was to have a protocol under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, but political interests are just too truncated. Similarly to the Syrians, some of the people from these small island states don’t want to be recognized as refugees as they want the problem to be fixed – they feel accepting climate refugee titles means accepting the lack of policy action from industrialized countries. Of course, these countries do not have a lot of power, I mean they are few people and have small GDPs, but they do have a moral power. The question is, how far does this go?
I did hear that some Tuvaluans are already buying land in Fiji, to escape from the rising sea levels. However, there are also 40 villages in Fiji that will have to move due to rising water levels – so then you have less land for people in Fiji, and others that are buying land, which isn’t an easy situation.
Chatty: No it isn’t. And the small islands probably have more resources at hand – most of the populations of the world who are going to lose their livelihoods because of climate change extreme weather are your simpler agriculturalists who already move, but there is a point when there isn’t any more feasible land for agriculture. I don’t think many people are interested in fighting for those rights. These people are silent and we tend to think of them as unskilled, unprofessional, and so even their own governments often don’t consider the contribution they make to the GDP.
On the other hand, just as armed conflict will end one day in those regions currently affected, there are many who consider that it is possible to reverse the changes in the climate, if we can just figure out how. Do you go with that argument, Frank?
Biermann: This is of course a catastrophe that is mainly foretold, but has not yet happened. So there are programs to reduce our emissions, and then there is the question of to what degree we can no longer reverse the damage we have already done. Then there are researchers who are thinking of geo-engineering, or climate engineering. Also, there is no convention against these technologies, there is nothing that says you are not allowed to put sulfur aerosols into the atmosphere, as no one has ever had this idea. It might not even be dangerous. Sulfur emissions block the sunlight and mimic a volcano explosion.
One of the big problems with climate change is that there are still climate skeptics around, and they influence their politicians.
Chatty: I did my graduate studies at UCLA in Los Angeles at the time when we had the most horrible smog alerts and were told to stay indoors. And yet over the years that has been controlled. So you can find examples where governments have dealt with serious negative impacts to the environment. But one of the big problems with climate change is that there are still climate sceptics around, and they influence their politicians.
It seems there needs to be a major fright before people push their governments to do something to mitigate against climate change. The idea of a two, three, four-degree temperature rise, for a lot of people, this doesn’t frighten them, as it is too far in the future. In Oman – a country which is already extremely hot – the rise in temperature is also accompanied by increased rainfall, and people say ‘ok, we have higher temperatures, but also more grassland.’ However, there is a point at which increased rainfall will not balance out rising temperatures.
Climate change is just so complicated, and so different in diverse areas of the world, which makes it very difficult to have a single UN convention. With people fleeing armed conflict, it’s something you see immediately, and therefore can respond to with aid packages and assistance. With climate change, you don’t see it as clearly. That is part of the reason why there aren’t really strategies in place to deal with it yet.
Biermann: Yes, there is no doubt that climate change is one of the most complicated issues. And some people say that geo-engineering is just to compensate for inadequate policies. I am technologically a quite conservative person, so I do have a hesitation about putting all kinds of aerosols in the atmosphere and then finding out that they have even worse side effects.
RG: Has there been a case of someone claiming refugee status due to climate change?
Chatty: The refugee convention is very clear on what it says allows you to be admitted. It really has to be a fear of persecution on the basis of race, religion, political positioning, and so on.
The convention is based on our nation-state system. The world cannot tolerate people who have no state. With climate change, we’re talking about entire regions or islands – we don’t have a convention that deals with that kind of displacement.
Biermann: The governments of these countries are also on the same side as the refugees as far as migration is concerned, so that’s also very different.
Also, the environment has always been a driver of migration, with people moving from the country to cities because their lifestyle is no longer sustainable, which leads to urbanization. Then, if they leave the cities and seek asylum in other countries, they are no longer seen as climate refugees, because often they have been in the cities for 5-10 years. So the climate change element is now hidden.
RG: How do you compare current threats that contribute to refugee movements to climate change?
Biermann: Climate change is one of the most important issues we currently face. ISIS or security problems may be very important for the next ten years, but climate change is the main issue for at least the next 100.