Owning the Climate Future of Migration

Chui-Ling Tam's picture

[This post is part of a series offered by IECA members attending COP23 Fiji in Bonn.]

Reflecting on another marathon COP as I fly back to an Alberta recovering from wildfires, I am thinking of the silk frangipani flower in my suitcase. I had asked a Pacific delegate whether it was indeed a frangipani in her hair, a bloom that Indonesia’s Balinese women wear and place in Hindu offerings every morning. She confirmed it was, then explained that Pacific islanders weave them into garlands like a crown around their heads. Then she insisted I keep the flower.

At this “Pacific COP”, led by the Fiji Presidency but hosted far from the increasingly storm-battered islands of the Pacific Ocean, flowers were everywhere, worn by Pacific women delegates and the glowing young men and women who filmed their testaments for the Pacific Climate Warriors to share at these talks. These messages are full of love and practical defiance, a call to keep “1.5 to stay alive” but also an acknowledgment that there may well be a future where home will be a space of memory, destroyed by storms or drowned by rising seas.

There are often hints of tears.

I hear them in the long moment between words as the young warriors take the stage. The Pacific Climate Warriors have a battle cry: “We are not drowning. We are fighting.” But many Pacific delegates are fighting on two fronts, calling for both global action that will save their islands, and at the same time calling for global action to equip climate migrants – they refuse to be called refugees – with the social, technical, entrepreneurial and political skills to prepare for a new life as a diaspora, keepers of their culture far from home.

Some leaders of the smallest islands concede their home will probably drown.

The Pacific narrative to deal with climate-induced migration places emphasis on pre-emptive action, to get people ready for the climate change to come and already occurring. The annual COPs have been held for over 20 years, and over time the climate change conversation has moved from mitigation, to adaptation, to loss and damage. That narrative arc has evolved as the world blew past opportunities to right its climate course. Now, island nations like Tuvalu and Kiribati are facing the possibility that they will drown, while Fiji offers to take in its neighbours even as it struggles with internal migration and displacement after Cyclone Winston caused an estimated USD1.4 billion of damage just two months after the 2015 Paris Agreement on the global warming “red line” of 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Now, the latest COP narrative describes a reluctant and ponderous turn to loss and damage. Increasingly, discussion on loss and damage has focused on risk insurance, in part to galvanize investors large and small to commit resources to creative solutions for energy, food production, construction, and programming, among others. But insurance also implies that something bad must be proven to have already happened to get financial compensation.

That doesn’t go far enough, a delegate with the Norwegian Refugee Council told a side event on displacement. People migrate rarely for one cause. Right now, if a person emigrates for climate reasons, that person has no rights. What’s missing is a response to slow-onset hazards and risks. Thus the Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and other poor countries are calling for attention to climate-induced migration. This is focused on minimizing displacement and upholding the rights of people on the move by supporting, financially and otherwise, long-term strategies for safe and dignified migration.

Delegates from SIDS and other climate-vulnerable countries like Bangladesh and Nepal have adopted “Migration with Dignity” as another battle cry.  It is a shout-out for pro-active action to a world that has all too often wrestled with slow and reactive response. Climate-induced migration means some people will move or are already moving as a pro-active response to an increasingly compromised environment. They are not waiting around to be forced out. Climate actors are advocating for a holistic approach to climate change governance of migration that accounts for the lived experience of people and places community first.

The immediacy and grace of community infuses this COP, an atmosphere remarked upon by various delegates. Amid the stories of present defiance and future loss, COP23 Fiji manages to capture some of the redolent charm of the Pacific. Even as the Pacific Climate Warriors swallow their tears to describe their mission, these young men and women talk about community and solidarity. And food, because as they reminded the audience at the “We the Pacific” side event in the lush Talanoa space, islanders love their food, as well as their flowers. It’s their culture. Migration, for them, is a last resort, but they know they must confront it. You can hear it in the gaps in their eloquence.

Meanwhile, the world continues to focus on technological fixes such as increasing energy efficiency to achieve a “Just Transition”. Developed countries may have the financial luxury to experiment with cash-heavy solutions; developing countries and island nations are perforce coping on a variety of fronts with a lot less money. But they also refuse to identify as “climate refugees” and the narrative of helpless victimhood it bequeaths. They would rather be agents of their own change, and to own their climate future of migration. That is dignity.



About the Author: 

Chui-Ling Tam teaches in the Department of Geography at the University of Calgary, Canada.