One of the topics under scrutiny at the December 2015 climate talks in Paris was the role of the UNFCCC governance and legal framework in responding to ‘climate change induced displacement, migration and planned relocation’.
Many media commentators continue pitch this issue as a question of how developed nations should deal with ‘climate refugees’. Accompanied by the obligatory image of a Palm-fringed low-lying atoll in king tide conditions, the thrust of much of stock-narrative is something like this. Idyllic, but under-developed Pacific island states are in imminent danger of sinking beneath rising seas. The only hope of salvation for their residents lies in the ability to migrate to safer havens in developed countries – in this region, Australia and New Zealand. But authorities and the courts in those countries won’t or can’t respond. Conventional refugee protection pathways are not available, because the current international regime doesn’t recognise environmentally displaced people as refugees. We should change update our interpretation of the Refugee Convention, or change it, or make a new convention.
The issue is, of course, more far more nuanced than that. The phrase ‘climate refugee’ is itself fraught, at least in a strict legal sense. Even the more neutral phrase ‘climate changed-displaced’ person has its shortcomings. Climate change is best understood as a ‘threat multiplier’ rather than single cause of displacement – especially in the case of ‘slow onset’ climate change-related pressures, such as sea-level rise and some forms of drought or sustained meteorological changes. This suggests that simplistic analyses of the causes for or solutions to displacement or migration are not especially helpful. Appropriate responses need to take into account the complexity of environmental, economic, cultural and other contributors to decisions to move from locations and countries vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.
The issue of climate-related displacement has been lurking on the fringes of the UNFCCC framework for a number of years. In 2010 in Cancun, parties agreed that under an adaptation framework, consideration should be given to ‘measures to enhance understanding, coordination and cooperation with regard to climate change induced displacement, migration and planned relocation’. However, progress in the area has been slow, in part, perhaps, because not all countries at risk from the effects of climate change have been enthusiastic about offering a ‘free pass’ to developed countries to continue to emit greenhouse gases by supporting a climate change-migration scheme.
Early drafts of the Paris climate package included an explicit reference to the need to develop approaches to address climate change induced displacement, migration and planned relocation in the operative text of the agreement, supplemented by words in the accompanying Conference decision. The President’s draft text released on Wednesday 9 December 2015 contained the following as a bracketed option in the much-debated ‘loss and damage’ section:
A climate change displacement coordination facility shall be established under the Warsaw International Mechanism…to help coordinate efforts to address climate change induced displacement, migration and planned relocation.
Those words were steadily watered down over the remaining 4 days of negotiations. The final adopted text of the Agreement contains no explicit reference to climate-related displacement in the operative agreement, however paragraph 50 of the accompanying COP decision requests the:
Executive Committee of the Warsaw International Mechanism [for Loss and Damage] to establish, according to its procedures and mandate, a task force to…develop recommendations for integrated approaches to avert, minimize and address displacement related to the adverse impacts of climate change.
The removal of legally binding obligation to establish a climate change displacement coordination facility in the final Agreement will have come as a disappointment to a number of states and international organisations, as well as many among the thousands of activists who – defying a French government ban – gathered in central Paris for a ‘red lines’ protest on the final day of the talks.
However, an explicit acknowledgement of the importance of addressing climate-related displacement in the COP decision will, it is suggested, continue to strengthen momentum building elsewhere on this issue – including through the UN High Commissioner on Refugees, International Organisation on Migration, the Nansen Initiative and other international organisations – inching towards a coordinated framework for oversight and collaboration on displacement responses, and potentially a system of legal protection for environmentally displaced people.
At a side event at the Paris-Le Bourget Conference Centre on 10 December, some common themes emerged in presentations by UN experts in this area. One was the need for proactivity.
“We must focus more on prevention and preparedness” was the message from Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator Kyung-wha Kang, “so that the losses, and the need for humanitarian interventions are minimized when disasters do strike. And they will strike.”
Speakers also highlighted the potential positive effects of climate-related migration, not only for affected communities, but for their future hosts, in the event that permanent movement is necessary. Michelle Leighton of the International Labour Organization put it like this:
“We have to stop seeing migration as a failure of development, and we have to start looking at it as an opportunity and potential solution for a climate changed future…These are people who bring skills, and talents, and ideas that can help fill labour shortages (of which there are many) not only from countries within their region, but in other regions. They can become entrepreneurs, run small businesses, and contribute to the economies of their host communities. And at the same time, these movements reduce pressure on climate-affected landscapes.”
New Zealand government representatives have participated in discussions on development of international frameworks for disaster response, including the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030 and the Nansen Initiative. The Nansen ‘Agenda for the Protection of Cross-Border Displaced Persons in the Context of Disasters and Climate Change’ adopted in October 2015 identifies as ‘effective state practices with regard to preparedness’:
Including cross-border displacement scenarios within bilateral or regional disaster contingency planning exercises…
Reviewing existing legal frameworks at the regional and national level and, if relevant, harmonizing them, with respect to receiving cross-border disaster-displaced persons.
Neither of those common-sense actions are, publicly at least, on the government’s current agenda. The administration has effectively adopted a ‘wait and see’ policy under which (according to a January 2013 MFAT briefing paper to the Associate Climate Change Minister), New Zealand would “continue to respond to climatic disasters in the Pacific and manage changes as they arise…” but otherwise has no active planning for responses to climate-related displacement underway. The renewed call for purposeful and pre-emptive policy towards climate-related displacement in the Paris package is a timely reminder for the need for a refreshed approach in New Zealand towards this emerging and critical issue.
(This piece was originally published on Victoria University's Deconstructing Paris page on 17 December 2015)
On the whole, human beings want to be good, George Orwell famously quipped. But not too good. And not quite all the time.
During the first nine days of the Paris climate talks, a lot of people have said that they want to be good. President Obama wants to be good. “We are the first generation to feel the impact of climate change,” he told the UNFCCC plenary last Monday, “and the last generation that can do something about it.” China’s president Xi Jinping wants to be good. “Going forward, ecological endeavours will feature prominently in China’s 35 year plan.” Prime Minister Cameron, Chancellor Merkel and President Putin all want to be good. President Mugabe wants to be good. He is disappointed that other states are not as good as they should be. “It is unconscionable that not only are developed countries miserly in providing the means for implementation of the Convention, but also want, inordinately, to burden us with cleaning up the mess that they themselves have created.”
Prime Minister Key also wants to be good. He appeared on the first day of the Conference to present a Communiqué to the UNFCCC calling on the international community to remove fossil fuel subsidies. “New Zealand is leading this international effort because we strongly feel that it is the missing piece in the climate change puzzle.” “We have one critical message. The time for action, global action, on fossil fuel subsidies is now.” Almost 40 countries, and at least 60 international organisations and major corporate entities joined New Zealand and the 8-nation coalition that it leads, the ‘Friends of Fossil Fuel Subsidy Reform’, in affirming the document.
But amid this cornucopia of goodness, hints of less-than-goodness appeared. New Zealand was rewarded for its fossil fuel subsidy reform efforts last Monday by receiving the first “Fossil of the Day” of the 2015 talks. In making the award, the Climate Action Network said, “New Zealand claims a top spot for rather hilariously, or not, urging countries to phase out fossil fuel subsidies while shelling out big bucks to prop up fossil fuel production to the tune of $80 million.” The $80 million figure comes from a 2013 WWF-NZ report which also says that New Zealand has increased its support for fossil fuel production sevenfold since 2008. New Zealand’s big moment at the historic climate talks received widespread international attention, but not the kind of attention that one suspects the MFAT team had hoped for. The thrust of much of the international coverage was either on the perceived hypocrisy identified by environmental groups of New Zealand’s international position, or on the refusal of Australia – long, an enthusiastic subsidiser of fossil fuel production – to sign up to the document.
Some of the cracks in the rhetoric surrounding the Friends’ Communiqué were revealed in a side-event on fossil fuel subsidy reform hosted by the IISD Global Subsidies Initiative and Friends of Fossil Fuel Subsidy Reform at the Paris Le Bourget conference venue yesterday.The representative of Finland, another member of the Friends group, proudly announced that Finland had eliminated all direct subsidies for fossil fuel consumption and production. He conceded that a range of indirect production subsidies for fossil fuels remained. It has developed a ‘traffic light’ system for its production subsidies: the “good, the bad and the ugly”, taking into account the harmful environmental effects and well as “social and economic benefits” of subsidies. Only the bad and the ugly will attract the ire of the Finnish officials. But what is ‘good’? Beauty, after all, tends to be in the eye of the beholder, especially where economic benefits are involved.
This is where it’s important to read the fine print of the Communiqué. The final paragraph records that the commitment is to “eliminate inefficient fossil-fuel subsidies in an ambitious and transparent manner as part of a major contribution to climate change mitigation”.
Inclusion of as flexible a qualifier as “inefficient” wouldn’t necessarily be an issue, as long as there is a common understanding of what the term covers. However, no definition is included, referenced, or even hinted at. The Communiqué is worthy initiative. But it suffers from the same fundamental problem that plagues other international initiatives developed to address fossil fuel subsidies – the 2009 G20 Pittsburgh Leaders Statement and APEC Singapore Statement – both of which have been championed by New Zealand and the Friends. The central concept of what is an undesirable fossil fuel subsidy (as opposed to benign, or even helpful subsidy) is left up to countries to determine on their own.
In New Zealand’s case, the open nature of its APEC commitment to “rationalise and phase out over the medium term fossil fuel subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption” allowed it a clear run through a 2015 international peer review (PDF) of 8 selected fossil fuel support policies. They included a non-resident off-shore drilling rig and seismic ship tax exemption, government funding for research and development the oil industry, and group of fiscal support measures for the ailing state-owned coal producer Solid Energy comprising a $25M equity injection, $130M secured loan facility, and government assumption of a $103M environmental liability indemnity. None of these policies were inefficient or led to wasteful consumption, officials submitted. The peer reviewers agreed. Who can argue when there is no clear yardstick to measure these policies against?
In yesterday’s session, Minister Groser was asked to comment on a $4 billion Australian scheme providing for diesel tax rebates in the mining and aquaculture industry.
“This is a game of progress,” he said. “And remember the old phrase: an exaggerated concern for consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.”
Not too good, and not quite all the time.
(This article was originally published by Idealog on 9 December 2015.)
A blog on public, international & environmental law
I'm a New Zealand academic lawyer, lecturer, & writer, researching & teaching public, international & environmental law at AUT Law School, Auckland. I'm particularly interested in sustainability, climate change, fossil fuel subsidy reform & climate displacement.