How to Make Climate Refugee Protections a Reality
By Steve Trent
Imagine if you couldn't feed your children and had to leave your home because of fossil fuels burned in a far-off country. That's what people on the front lines of climate change face today.
The climate crisis is now creating more refugees than war. In recent years tens of millions of people around the world have been driven from their homes by drought, storms, flooding and fires. Over the next 50 years, climate change could cause a refugee crisis on an unprecedented scale.
Where will people go when their countries become inhospitable? Will the governments of the world accept them?
In January the United Nations recognized the severity of these questions and formally stated that it may be unlawful for governments to return people to countries where their lives would be put at risk by the climate crisis.
The United Nations should be applauded for standing up for some of the most vulnerable people on the planet. And while this opens the door to establishing protections to ensure climate refugees receive the same legal protections as those fleeing war or persecution, it doesn't yet guarantee that: We need a comprehensive international plan.
Climate, Conflict and the Universal Right to Life
Time is already running short for some.
Pacific island states, in particular, find themselves at imminent risk from climate change, as even moderate sea-level rise may swamp many beneath the waves.
It's this threat that drove Ioane Teitiota, a resident of the Republic of Kiribati, to apply for asylum in New Zealand in 2015 — the first time a person identified himself as a climate refugee. Teitiota cited overcrowding, failing crops, contaminated water supplies, social tensions and violence as among the reasons he needed to leave his island home, which at its highest point isn't even 10 feet above sea level.
Teitiota is far from alone. Around the world the climate crisis is making violence more likely by causing shortages of food, water and safe environments. This has had a role in multiple conflicts already, including the devastating Syrian civil war.
Despite the risk to his island nation, Teitiota's application was rejected because the Supreme Court of New Zealand ruled his life was not in immediate danger. The 10-15 years before Kiribati will be underwater, the court found, would be enough time for other arrangements to come to light.
But Teitiota brought his case to the U.N. Human Rights Committee — the body of experts responsible for upholding international civil rights — which led to January's decision. While the committee accepted New Zealand's original judgment, there was one hopeful outcome: It stated that in the future countries may be acting unlawfully if they return someone to their country of origin when that person's right to life is threatened by the climate crisis.
Essentially, this sets the stage to provide climate refugees a similar legal status to people fleeing war or persecution.
This is significant, but it raises even more questions.
We don't know how immediate the danger should have to be for someone to be able to claim asylum because of the climate crisis, or how an individual might be required to prove their level of vulnerability.
We do know that individuals can still be returned to their home country if there's any safe location in that country at all.
The aftermath of Cyclone Idai, which displaced hundreds of thousands in Mozambique in 2019. Denis Onyodi / IFRC / DRK / Climate Centre / CC BY-NC 2.0
This is important because few countries — for example, relatively small island nations — will be so affected by the climate crisis in the short term that no safe place exists for people to be sent back to within them. Forcing refugees from larger nations to stay in, or return to, their home countries will create that same overcrowding, tensions and competition for resources that Teitiota feared — situations we've already seen in Syria and other places. And the communities they're resettled into may not remain safe much longer.
Three Key Next Steps
These outstanding questions — what makes someone a climate refugee, the immediacy of danger required, and how to assess the safety of whole countries — must form the fundamental building blocks of an international agreement on tackling the climate crisis and the changes in migration patterns it will bring.
This new international agreement, separate from the Geneva Convention, should provide a legal definition of climate refugees, and how they should be protected, as the first step to a global agreement. If countries can agree on what being a climate refugee means, then people forced to leave their homes because of rising seas, unbearable heat, or related threats will get the protection they deserve.
Beyond these direct effects, climate breakdown often acts to magnify and multiply conflicts and resource shortages. An international agreement on climate refugees must recognize the complex and multifaceted nature of climate change and its related societal threats.
On the topic of the safety and integrity of entire countries, a new international agreement must also resist the temptation to buy a small amount of time by sending people to areas that are only temporarily safer than the ones they left. It must seek long-term solutions that can secure notions of sovereignty and cultural identity alongside the economic, social and environmental needs of forced migrants.
The United Nations has laid down the first stage of the theory. Now all nations must come together to make climate justice a reality.
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
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This week marks the official start of fall, but longer nights and colder days can make it harder to spend time outdoors. Luckily, there are several inspiring environmental films that can be streamed at home.
1. Kiss the Ground<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ccc5f0c92a5603e68aec39e56b0db02a"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/K3-V1j-zMZw?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p><strong>Streaming On: Netflix</strong></p><p><strong>Premiere Date: Sept. 22</strong></p><p>Between <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/wildfires-california-washington-oregon-photos-2647585008.html" target="_self">wildfires devastating the U.S. West Coast</a> and <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tropical-storm-beta-landfall-2647760268.html" target="_self">storms battering the Gulf</a>, the impacts of the <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/climate-change/" target="_self">climate crisis</a> can feel overwhelming right now. <em><a href="https://kissthegroundmovie.com/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">Kiss the Ground</a> </em>offers an alternative to all of the bad news by focusing on solutions.</p><p>The film, directed by Josh and Rebecca Tickell and narrated by Woody Harrelson, explains how we can heal the Earth through "regenerative agriculture," farming practices that draw carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and into soil as a way to restore soil health, which in turn boosts ecosystems and food supplies.</p><p>"<em>Kiss the Ground </em>shows how feasible it is to make these changes at a grassroots level immediately and make a truly substantive impact with low cost and easy to implement solutions," Executive Producer RJ Jain said in an email. "This is why I got involved."</p>
2. Public Trust: The Fight for America's Public Lands<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="5338f7a2931e356910026e5fd76fac56"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/jsKMTAaj_wQ?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p><strong>Streaming On: YouTube</strong></p><p><strong>Premiere Date: Sept. 25, 2 p.m. EDT </strong></p><p>This <a href="https://www.patagonia.com/films/public-trust/" target="_blank">award-winning documentary</a> tells the stories of Indigenous activists, journalists, whistleblowers and historians working to protect America's <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/public-lands" target="_self">public lands</a>. The film focuses on three political struggles: the shrinking of <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/bears-ears" target="_self">Bears Ears</a> National Monument in Utah, the mining of Boundary Waters Wilderness in Minnesota and the opening of the <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/Arctic-National-Wildlife-Refuge" target="_self">Arctic National Wildlife Refuge</a> to fossil fuel exploration.</p><p><em>Public Trust</em> was directed by David Garrett Byars and produced by Jeremy Rubingh. Patagonia Films, Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard and actor Robert Redford are executive producers. It will be <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OGjnIG7puzY" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">released</a> on YouTube in time for <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/national-public-lands-day-2640656776.html" target="_self">National Public Lands Day</a>.</p><p>"Our country is fortunate to have millions of acres of public lands, including National Parks, Monuments, Wildlife Refuges and Wilderness set aside for future generations," Redford said. "Sadly, these lands that belong to you and me are under unprecedented threats from the greed of big corporations, eager to weaken restrictions in the pursuit of profits. Many of our current politicians are also to blame. <em>Public Trust</em> tells the story of citizens who are fighting back. It's a much-needed wake-up call for all of us who want to preserve our unique and wild cultural heritage."</p>
3. David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="156438a30836a765d7a92982545fc334"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/B_OFZvAd05Y?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p><strong>Streaming On: Netflix</strong></p><p><strong>Premiere Date: Oct. 4</strong></p><p>Beloved nature broadcaster <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/David-Attenborough" target="_self">David Attenborough</a> has spent his career introducing viewers to the wonders of our planet. In recent years, his footage of albatrosses swallowing <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/plastics" target="_self">plastic</a> in <em>Blue Planet II</em> has been credited with <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/2018-fighting-plastic-waste-2624606566.html" target="_self">helping to ramp up</a> the global fight against plastic pollution. Now, in this <a href="https://www.wwf.org.uk/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">World Wildlife Fund</a> (WWF)-produced <a href="https://www.attenborough.film/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">documentary</a>, he reflects on the defining moments of his career and the devastating changes he has witnessed.</p><p><em>David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet,</em> which was also produced by Silverback Films and directed by Alastair Fothergill, Jonnie Hughes and Keith Scholey, features an intimate conversation between Attenborough and Sir Michael Palin as the broadcaster reflects on his life and a career that took him to every continent on Earth. In addition to streaming on Netflix, the movie will be available in select theaters starting Sept. 28.</p><p>"For decades, David has brought the natural world to the homes of audiences worldwide, but there has never been a more significant moment for him to share his own story and reflections," WWF executive producer Colin Butfield said in a <a href="https://www.wwf.org.uk/updates/david-attenborough-life-our-planet" target="_blank">statement</a>. "This film coincides with a monumental year for environmental action as world leaders make critical decisions on nature and climate. It sends a powerful message from the most inspiring and celebrated naturalist of our time."</p>
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By Maria Trimarchi and Sarah Gleim
If all the glaciers and ice caps on the planet melted, global sea level would rise by about 230 feet. That amount of water would flood nearly every coastal city around the world [source: U.S. Geological Survey]. Rising temperatures, melting arctic ice, drought, desertification and other catastrophic effects of climate change are not examples of future troubles — they are reality today. Climate change isn't just about the environment; its effects touch every part of our lives, from the stability of our governments and economies to our health and where we live.
<p>Why environmental refugees flee their homes is a complicated mixture of environmental degradation and desperate socioeconomic conditions. People leave their homes when their livelihoods and safety are jeopardized. What effects of climate change put them in jeopardy? Climate change triggers, among other problems, desertification and drought, <a href="https://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/green-science/deforestation.htm" target="_blank">deforestation</a>, land degradation, rising sea levels, <a href="https://science.howstuffworks.com/nature/natural-disasters/flood.htm" target="_blank">floods</a>, more frequent and more extreme storms, <a href="https://science.howstuffworks.com/nature/natural-disasters/earthquake.htm" target="_blank">earthquakes</a>, <a href="https://science.howstuffworks.com/nature/natural-disasters/volcano.htm" target="_blank">volcanoes</a>, food insecurity and famine.</p><p>The September <a href="http://visionofhumanity.org/app/uploads/2020/09/ETR_2020_web-1.pdf" target="_blank">2020 Ecological Threat Register Report</a>, by the Institute for Economics & Peace, predicts the hardest hit populations will be:</p><ul><li>Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa</li><li>Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Chad, India and Pakistan (which are among the world's least peaceful countries)</li><li>Pakistan, Ethiopia and Iran are most at risk for mass displacements</li><li>Haiti faces the highest risk of all countries in Central America and the Caribbean</li><li>India and China will be among countries experiencing high or extreme water stress</li></ul>
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