A Curious Silence on Climate Change Displacement

Chui-Ling Tam's picture

[This post is part of a series offered by IECA members attending COP21 in Paris.]

During the 4th Paris Committee meeting on Wednesday Dec 9, as individual countries and regional coalitions responded to the “ambitious” draft text that would be the almost penultimate version of the agreement coming out of COP21, an increasingly powerful and repeated refrain was the “red line” of 1.5 degrees Celsius. Delegate after delegate asserted that 1.5 was the deal-breaker, the line of last defence, the line that defined possibility and certain death for numerous Small Island Developing States and the many states bordering on the oceans.

While the members of the MBB-IECA team were variously dispersed onsite at Paris-Le Bourget or in their hotels and B&Bs propped by their laptops in tired isolation, we were all compulsively tracking the emerging shape of the Paris Agreement as the 4th meeting slipped into overtime, ending before midnight.

COP21, in fine COP tradition, has been an exhausting affair, and you could hear that tiredness in the measured rage of the representatives as they tolled the thin red line. One SIDS delegate urged the parties to agree to a legally binding agreement at 1.5 degrees so that the world could movie forward and the delegates could “go back to their families”.

In the public world of climate change statesmanship, and notwithstanding the colourful performances of indigenous peoples who have come to Paris in their struggle to be heard and heeded, the concept of people is curiously remote. The invocation of “families’ at the Paris Committee was a wistful raw moment in the climate change conversation, a gently powerful symbol of home and domesticity among over-familiar stories of environmental threat and human survival.

Home, though, is a shifting concept. And the loss of home, whether now or in the future, is a “Pacific reality” in the new world of climate change, as observers and the public were told Thursday at side events on environment and migration. The International Organization for Migration notes that 1 billion people are on the move around the world at this moment, an adaptation strategy that can only get worse in response to climate change. It is not just a question of numbers, the sheer volume of people on the move. The issue is also one of redistribution when spaces are undermined. Where will people go, and what are the physical, biological, economic, social and spatial resources that they will share? Migration, the IOM says, is the “defining phenomenon of our time”.

Yet at COP21, there is a curious silence on the threat of climate change displacement. Much has been made of the disproportionate attention to mitigation and the inadequate attention to adaptation, both discursively and financially. But displacement, the forced and coerced removal of disrupted lives in places that may become unviable or cease to exist, is not being discussed. In the observers hall where some 200 booths are on display, where some countries are relegated to a footprint of two to three square meters away from the expansive pavilions of more prosperous nation states, the refugee agency UNHCR is gamely broadcasting the urgency of climate change displacement. It's been an uphill struggle, the staffer tells me.

Amid the many absences in the Paris text – the voicelessness of women, youth, indigenous, and oceans in an agreement that will affect the lives of countless people, organisms and environments – perhaps it is too awful to contemplate failure. As the delegates hold their "Indaba of Solutions" going into the Friday deadline, a consensus seems to be building toward inclusion of the “red line” of 1.5 degrees Celsius in some form in the final text. But will it stave off vast movements of people? If we don’t get the Paris Agreement right - and even if we do - where will the families go if there is no longer a home to go back to?

The potential relocation of billions of lives displaced by climate change is a conversation we need to have.