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Kumi Naidoo: We Need a Model to Gauge Climate Impact on Displacement

At the inaugural U.N. meeting on Refugees and Migrants, environmental advocate Kumi Naidoo opens our series “Voices from the Summit” by calling for greater recognition of the links between climate change, conflict and the accelerated movement of peoples.

Written by Preethi Nallu Published on Read time Approx. 12 minutes
Bangladesh climate refugees legal limbo
Bangladeshi boys play on the banks of the River Meghna in the island district of Bhola, where the the river spills into the Bay of Bengal. Scientists have projected seas will rise by an average of around 1m (3ft) this century. But just a 65cm (26in) rise would swallow some 40 percent of the country’s productive land, according to the World Bank. AP/Shahria Sharmin

NEW YORK – In a highly anthropocentric world, where most public policy in relation to the environment has been reactive, calling for laws that will protect generations to come is, in its very essence, a daunting job.

But this has not stopped Kumi Naidoo, a human rights activist from South Africa who confronted apartheid policies in the 1970s and 1980s and has spent the past decade as a stalwart campaigner on global climate impact.

While his interest in the environment and increasingly erratic weather patterns was triggered when working on campaigns to end rural poverty, it was his own daughter’s concern that prompted a new level of introspection. How would she and her peers cope with climate change, for which the most culpable generations would not live to pay the costs? The question that arose from the pure-hearted intentions of a child moved him to advocate for global solutions that could benefit even the most remote communities.

Since taking over the leadership of Greenpeace, one of the most influential environmental organizations to date, in 2009, Naidoo has been an omnipresent voice at all levels of climate-related action – from U.N.-led conferences to the front lines of street protests and virtual advocacy. Although he wound up his formal commitments with Greenpeace this year and returned to South Africa to set up the African Civil Society Centre, environmental advocacy will remain at the forefront of his work.

At the U.N. Summit on Refugees and Migrants, which Naidoo is attending despite his utter confidence in a tame outcome, he points to a single piece of evidence that should convince people and parties with even the most conservative political inclinations of the importance of addressing the link between climate change, conflict and displacement.

The evidence is the CIA report on climate change that was made public in 2002.

“The report says that the biggest threat to peace, security and stability will not come from conventional threats of terrorism but from the impacts of climate change,” Naidoo pointed out.

By his own admittance, it is not a source he often quotes. But there are well-founded reasons why retired army officials in the U.S. apprise themselves with climate change news. “They have seen a lot of intelligence reports over time,” said Naidoo.

The U.N. summit could be a venue where countering climate change is treated as an intrinsic aspect of managing the long-term movement of people. With the Paris climate agreement – adopted at the Conference of Parties 21 in December 2015 – nearing a realization, especially with the U.S. and China agreeing to ratify the treaty, New York could  build upon the current momentum.

The draft documents of the summit ostensibly recognize the impact of climate change on displacement, but show very little enthusiasm for more research or acknowledgment of the increasingly potent impact of changing climate on subsistence communities.

“We simply must develop a better matrix for measuring the extent to which climate-related factors drive migration,” said Naidoo, when Refugees Deeply spoke to him in depth.

A Lebanese farmer stands near a Syrian armored vehicle in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, in 2005. The situation has now reversed, with Syrian farmers entering Lebanon as refugees, following the Syrian conflict. Many claim they had starting losing their livestock and livelihoods well before the start of the uprising in 2011. (AP/Petros Karadjias)

A Lebanese farmer stands near a Syrian armored vehicle in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, in 2005. The situation has now reversed, with Syrian farmers entering Lebanon as refugees, following the Syrian conflict. Many claim they had starting losing their livestock and livelihoods well before the start of the uprising in 2011. (AP/Petros Karadjias)

Refugees Deeply: With the nexus between climate change, displacement and conflict – how are these three issues connected? Is there enough research and is there enough concerted action based on this research?

Kumi Naidoo: I would say first that there is probably not enough research. Having said that, I think the difficulty we have with climate change generally as an issue is that we are never able to show data causality. For example, we know that in the 10 years before resistance a certain percentage of the fertile land of Syria was not usable for agriculture because of climate-induced desertification. That’s what moved large numbers of people. Now obviously that was not the only driver, right? So it’s hard to quantify exactly how the climate impact contributes to it.

This is a problem generally when we look at extreme weather, melting of the polar ice caps and so on. Quite often the challenge is you cannot say X led to Y. I don’t think there’s enough public conversation about it.

The only person, for example, in the U.S. presidential election that made a connection between migration conflict and climate change was Bernie Sanders and even within the Democratic Party he got ridiculed for making that.

If we look at resource conflicts, for example, with Darfur, the genocide there and the movement of people, internal displacement and so on, we know that most probably the tragedy of Darfur will be recognized in the aftermath as the first major resource war brought about as a result of climate impacts. This was basically the Sahara Desert’s marching southward at the rate of almost a mile a year. Lake Chad being one of the largest lakes in the world, which is right next to Darfur, shrank to the size of a pond, to put it in the words of Ban Ki-moon.

It is absolutely clear that it is happening on a significant scale, whether it’s the people living in the coastal parts of Bangladesh or in Mali, Niger and so on. Parts of Africa, for example, are becoming depopulated. I would say there’s a real gap for a research initiative to try to track this.

A man holds an umbrella as water engulfs him during high tide on the Arabian Sea coast, in Mumbai, India. A new study by the journal Science Advances shows that man-made climate change is responsible for most of the change seen in ocean surface temperatures near the equator, which in turn affect regional rainfall patterns, including the Indian monsoon. (AP/Rajanish Kakade )

A man holds an umbrella as water engulfs him during high tide on the Arabian Sea coast, in Mumbai, India. A new study by the journal Science Advances shows that man-made climate change is responsible for most of the change seen in ocean surface temperatures near the equator, which in turn affect regional rainfall patterns, including the Indian monsoon. (AP/Rajanish Kakade )

Refugees Deeply: There is also displacement in non-conflict situations due to climate impact. Is there greater consciousness that future displacement is also going to take place in countries that are showing progress in terms of their development?

Naidoo: I think there’s still a lot of cognitive dissonance about understanding some of those internal migrations in this context. There are really high levels of denial.

I would say that the people who have been most vocal on this that I know have been the folks from Bangladesh. At every Climate Conference [COP] since 2009 they’ve been organizing workshops on climate-induced migration.

In taking this discussion further, we need to develop tools to help quantify to the best of our ability, “what was the impact in certain circumstances which drove migration?”

Two brothers, Ashikur, 24 (right), and Arifur, 21, stand in the spot where their home was once located, in the island district of Bhola, Bangladesh. (AP/Shahria Sharmin)

Two brothers, Ashikur, 24 (right), and Arifur, 21, stand in the spot where their home was once located, in the island district of Bhola, Bangladesh. (AP/Shahria Sharmin)

Then there are also different kinds of conflict, right? There are conflicts between the state and citizens like in Syria but then there are community-level conflicts as well, which are about very basic resources like water wells, food sources, grazing rights, etc.

In Lake Turkana, in northern Kenya, people of different language groups have lived peacefully for a very, very long time. But as Lake Turkana started drying up and livelihoods started being threatened, we saw a major spike in intra-community violence, which then led to forced migration. So that’s also happening.

But there are also lots of cases such as India; there might not be physical violence and so on but there have been such massive changes in weather patterns that particularly for people engaged in subsistence agriculture, climate impacts have actually forced people to leave places where historically they were able to live decently.

If you were to put a typography to it, there are probably three types of areas where climate plays a part. One is where there’s a conflict between a state and a large portion of the citizens, like in Syria, and where climate is an exacerbating factor. The second thing would be where intra-community conflicts and inter-community conflicts are taking place at the grassroots level, with the state stepping in to try to play a mediating role and calm things down. The third case would be where, in fact, conflict or violence has not emerged but people actually move because water sources and food sources are drying up.

Displaced Sudanese women carry firewood at Abu Shouk camp, in north Darfur, Sudan, where more than 40,000 displaced people receive food and shelter from international aid agencies. Drought in the region forced nomadic tribes off their traditional grazing lands. (AP/Amr Nabil)

Displaced Sudanese women carry firewood at Abu Shouk camp, in north Darfur, Sudan, where more than 40,000 displaced people receive food and shelter from international aid agencies. Drought in the region forced nomadic tribes off their traditional grazing lands. (AP/Amr Nabil)

Refugees Deeply: You have highlighted people losing their livelihoods and indigenous ways of living in your work, and also rural to urban migration and how it’s going at an artificial pace. Could you elaborate on this trend and its implications for cities and the environment?

Naidoo: Rural [to] urban migration has been with us for as long as cities started emerging. But in the past 20 to 50 years migration from rural to urban areas has intensified and it would be interesting to understand the impact on agriculture and subsistence agriculture because of soil depletion, water scarcity and drought in all sorts of climate-intensified factors.

I have no doubt in my mind that it’s intensified because people do not have access to food and so on – in places like Niger and Mali where people have had to move because where they were doing agriculture in the past it’s just not a possibility anymore because it’s so hard to depend on rain-fed agriculture these days. However, I should concede that this is based on anecdotal evidence rather than having seen a scientific research study on it.

Refugees Deeply: Have you seen any change over the years in how the U.N. and the international community in general have been approaching this? Where are they failing in making the connections?

Naidoo: By the end of 2015 there were close to 250 million people that reside in countries other than their own. Of those about 20 million are considered refugees, right? If you look at the current moment compared historically, this is the biggest movement of peoples we’ve seen since the end of the Second World War. The U.N. and the whole international system should be rising up to address the problem with the same kind of energy, effort and so on that we dealt with the European refugee crisis after the Second World War. We’re not seeing that and we must ask ourselves, is it because of the world we live in, which is one where we suffer from economic apartheid, social apartheid, and is it also us suffering from a kind of migration apartheid?

With Western countries such as the U.S. and the U.K. creating a crisis like the one in Iraq, we are not seeing the same kind of generosity and urgency.

Refugees Deeply: Where are the gaps and how can the U.N. better address them?

Naidoo: There are four areas where the U.N. is failing.

First is financing. We need increasing levels of finance as a priority for managing migration and facilitating integration. I know that the E.U., for example, could make much greater use of their borrowing capacity. International financial institutions like the World Bank and IMF could more closely integrate their economic development and humanitarian financing in countries of first arrival. What we need here is massive investment reminiscent of the Marshall Plan following the end of the Second World War, where European migration was a big issue.

The second issue is education. I think there has to be a much deeper pot to provide for the education of migrants from preschool all the way to university. To be fair, there are many education initiatives underway for migrants today. But more is needed to meet the needs.

The third issue is that of identification. Movement often occurs in pretty precarious conditions, in which refugees may lose their identity documents or they might consider possession of identity documents dangerous or have their documents seized by people smugglers or others. What the international system needs to do is create a new form of legal identity documentation that serves the needs of migrants without putting them in danger and avoiding links to any earlier identity status or country of origin. Such a documentation system may be able to benefit from lessons with identification cards already successfully issued for undocumented migrants by some local governments in Europe at the moment. So you introduce such a system on a global basis to consolidate initiatives already springing up on a more ad hoc basis. It makes it possible to monitor the scale of movement across borders in a way that harmonizes human rights, protection and security.

The fourth area where I think there’s much more that the international community and the U.N. should be doing to help countries that are receiving migrants, is with integration. It has been very painful to see the fear and hostility that greet migrants in so many parts of the world. I’m afraid it’ll grow worse if migrants and refugees are left without access to housing, employment, healthcare and other social support.

A man holds a piece of cardboard with a “Welcome” slogan during the arrival of refugees at the train station in Saalfeld, central Germany. (AP/Jens Meyer,file)

A man holds a piece of cardboard with a “Welcome” slogan during the arrival of refugees at the train station in Saalfeld, central Germany. (AP/Jens Meyer,file)

Expanding global capacity for private placements from the tens of thousands available today to hundreds of thousands or millions will require a network of intermediary community-based organizations that can facilitate this.

Unless civil society is part of it, we have a huge problem. If you look at when Angela Merkel tried to take a more humane approach, she would not have succeeded in going against some of the people in her own party if there hadn’t been citizens arriving at train stations welcoming refugees and so on.

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