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Climate-induced displacement and COP26: an urgent issue of ecological justice

The effects of climate change will displace an estimated 216 million people by 2050. As COP26 draws to a close, our Centre for Just Places and CAPSA campaign argue for an urgent, interconnected response to the crisis of climate change-induced displacement.

Climate change is already impacting every region of the world, in ways that are ‘widespread, rapid, and intensifying.’ A recent report by the World Bank (the Groundswell Report) estimated that the effects of climate change will force 216 million people, across six world regions, to become displaced by 2050. Currently, there are no international legal protections available for people who are forcibly displaced across borders due to the impacts of climate change. This leaves many climate-displaced people in situations of vulnerability and poverty.

Over the past two weeks, world leaders, along with experts, activists and people on the frontline of climate change, have met in Glasgow at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26). Today is the final day of COP26, and the final opportunity for of the conference for collective global commitment on climate change. This community has placed incredible urgency on conference delegates to cooperate in order to limit increasing global warming to 1.5°C. This is particularly critical when considering the impact that a warming planet could have on people who are already vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Already, ocean-dependent communities are being driven from their homes and ancestral lands, and climate-induced disasters continue to increase in severity and incidence across the world. This is an issue of ecological justice.

An issue on the minds of many

Between 19-21 October, the Andrew and Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law at the University of New South Wales held their yearly conference. This year’s virtual conference brought together experts and activists from around the world to speak to the critical impact that climate change is having on forced migration and displacement. Staff from Jesuit Social Services attended the conference, so this issue is present in our scope of interest.

Ecological justice is a key area of practice for Jesuit Social Services, and a through line underpinning our work. Our interest in the intersection between climate change and forced migration is demonstrated in the work, advocacy and research of both the Centre for Just Places (the Centre) and the Catholic Alliance for People Seeking Asylum (CAPSA). Established at the start of this year, the Centre stands at the forefront of Jesuit Social Services’ ecological justice work. The Centre aims to promote social and ecological justice by enabling and supporting place-based approaches nationally through research, collaboration, engagement and knowledge exchange. CAPSA is an alliance of individuals, organisations, schools and parishes from across the Catholic community who advocate for fair and humane treatment for people seeking asylum in Australia. Co-convened by Jesuit Social Services and Jesuit Refugee Service Australia, CAPSA works to utilise this national Catholic network to advocate on issues affecting people seeking asylum, which includes climate-induced displacement.

Climate-induced displacement

Climate-induced displacement and migration affects communities globally, but disproportionately the world’s most vulnerable. While many people are forcibly displaced across international borders to seek safety from the effects of climate change, the majority are displaced within their own countries. Over 30 million people were internally displaced by climate-induced disasters in 2020; three times more than those displaced by conflict and violence.

Communities that are vulnerable to the effects of climate change also experience exacerbated rates of poverty, hunger, and low access to resources. Data from UNHCR shows many regions are affected by concurrent and consecutive disasters – in many instances, violence, conflict and instability result from these compounding issues. In short, climate vulnerability is a risk multiplier that leaves communities more vulnerable to further harm.

Australia is also facing the devastating impacts of worsening disasters, as seen at the start of 2020 with extreme bushfires across the country’s south east. It has also been reported that Indigenous communities are highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. In the 2020 bushfires, over 84,000 First Nations people were affected, not only with the physical loss of home, but the loss of a land that has cultural and spiritual significance.

Why this issue must be addressed

Just prior to COP26, significant steps were taken by the UN to acknowledge the critical impact that climate change has on human rights. This has now been formally recognised in a resolution by the UN Human Rights Council. On 8 October 2021, having a clean, healthy and sustainable environment was established as a human right, and a Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of climate change established.

This is a complex issue, driven by the political, cultural, economic and other social conditions that interact with climate change. Despite this complexity, three clear and urgent responses emerge: one, the rapid and sustained reduction of greenhouse gas emissions; two, implementing adaptation strategies to promote people’s rights to live safely and well in their homelands; and three, proactive responses within and across countries to protect the rights of those displaced.

The Groundswell Report estimates that if there were decisive, collective and intergovernmental action on climate change (COP26 was a prime opportunity) the current scale of climate-induced migration could be reduced by 80 percent. To meet the target of limiting warming to 1.5°C this century, the world needs to halve emissions in the next eight years. Despite some progressions at COP26, national climate pledges  still must be updated to meet the target of limiting warming to 1.5°C this century, to avoid the worst impacts of climate-induced migration and displacement.

One important way governments can reduce these impacts is through adaptation strategies that mitigate climate risks and build communities’ resilience to stay in their homes. Climate-induced migration is linked to social and economic factors such as poverty and fragility of livelihood. Adaptation aims to reduce risk to climate change impacts, and build capacity to cope with events (such as heatwaves, bushfires and floods) and adapt to change. It is needed to support people to live in their homelands and support their livelihoods. The Glasgow Adaptation Imperative is a promising step towards significant adaptation outcomes, but action is clearly not keeping pace with the scale of change needed to ensure ‘no-one is left behind.’ Further financial commitment, and political will beyond COP26 is needed in order to support climate adaptation in nations vulnerable to the devastating impacts of our changing climate.

The outcomes of COP26 will have significant impacts for people experiencing climate-induced displacement and migration globally, we must also advance action on immigration, asylum, and human rights. Andrew Harper, the UNHCR’s Special Advisor on Climate Action, told COP26 delegates of the severe impact forced displacement is having on countries that are already devastatingly affected by global warming, and vulnerable to future disasters. He concluded with a sobering statement to the conference: people and communities affected by climate-induced disasters and displacement “can’t wait for more COPs and more unfulfilled commitments”.

It is clear that decisive global commitment and action is urgently needed. The way we respond to climate change impacts and disasters must foreground the needs and voices of people most vulnerable and particularly those displaced by the effects of climate change. As an urgent ecological justice issue it is imperative that we consider how a deeper harmony with and care for the environment can keep people secure in their homelands.