LONDON: World leaders will gather on Monday at the UN’s New York headquarters for a closed-door session on climate change hosted by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
Johnson, who is scheduled to host world leaders in Glasgow in November for the COP26 climate summit, is expected to press delegates to pledge to reduce carbon emissions, with a particular emphasis on ending the use of coal.
It is hoped that world leaders will be free to speak frankly during the closed-door session rather than simply trotting out feel-good bromides or reverting to established positions.
Johnson is likely to find a ready ear. Last week, Abdulla Shahid, the new president of the UN General Assembly and Maldives foreign minister, told Arab News that climate change will be among the most critical issues of his presidency.
And so it should be. The Maldives, an island nation in the heart of the Indian Ocean, is the lowest-lying country in the world, with an average elevation of just 1.5 meters. Rising sea levels caused by global warming pose an immediate existential threat to its future.
The focus on mitigating the effects of climate change cannot come soon enough for the hundreds of millions of people that the World Bank believes will be displaced as a result of global warming.
A bombshell World Bank report published earlier this month predicted that without decisive action some 216 million people will be displaced by climate change by 2050 — more than 20 times as many people as were displaced by the Syrian civil war.
In a worst-case scenario, the World Bank’s Groundswell II report said that North Africa alone could lose more than 19 million people to climate migration — more than the entire population of Tunisia.
These people, the World Bank said, will be uprooted from their homes by a combination of rising sea levels, declining freshwater access and other issues, which threaten to undo decades of progress on poverty reduction, child mortality, development and education.
North African states, in particular, rely heavily on their agricultural industries to fuel economic growth and to feed their rapidly growing populations. Climate change threatens to devastate these industries, forcing millions from their homes.
Despite the doom and gloom of the report, Ferzina Banaji, communications lead for climate change at the World Bank, told Arab News: “There is a window of opportunity to act now but it is shrinking rapidly.
“Immediate and concerted action to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions and support green, inclusive and resilient development could reduce the scale of internal climate migration by as much as 80 percent from as much as 216 million people to 44 million people across the six regions covered in the report,” Banaji said.
“In North Africa, where water stress will amplify already scarce water resources, it is critical to step up action on these fronts, building on the already strong efforts of the countries in the region.”
The diversification of livelihoods in the North African region away from agriculture could also improve its resilience to climate change. Although the World Bank report did not directly cover the Middle East, Banaji said that the “region already faces climate change impacts, particularly extreme heat and water stress, which are both expected to worsen in the coming decades.”
Even in a best-case scenario, tens of millions of people globally will undoubtedly be uprooted by climate change by 2050. And the future for these displaced people — disproportionately vulnerable and from lower and middle-income countries — is bleak.
Troels Hedegaard, an associate professor studying migration at Denmark’s Aalborg University, told Arab News that his research indicates that people look even less kindly on climate migrants than they do on those fleeing war and persecution.
“My research indicates that populations in Northern Europe view climate migrants less favorably compared to migrants fleeing because of personal persecution or civil war,” Hedegaard said.
“They are, however, more welcome than migrants leaving because of economic reasons. I believe this is because this category of migrants is generally unknown to most people in Northern Europe.”
In Northern Europe, one of the world’s most climate-resilient regions, Hedegaard cautioned that despite the relative safety, “it would be very difficult to gather public support behind granting climate migrants residency or any other kind of permanent stay.”
This difference in attitude, he said, could be related to long-standing global norms derived from supranational bodies, such as the UN, which have defined what it means to be a refugee — or not — for decades, and this could result in institutional barriers to external migration.
“Even though the terms climate refugees or environmental refugees are sometimes used to describe people displaced by climate events, they are not included in the United Nations 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol relating to the status to seek protection, and therefore they cannot seek asylum,” Hedegaard said.
But according to Dr. Alex de Sherbinin, an associate director at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, the vast majority of future climate migrants are likely to be internally displaced — and while the emphasis, in general, is on poorer countries in the global south, rich countries such as the US are not exempt from these issues.
The US regularly experiences deadly wildfires, hurricanes, droughts and other such environmental catastrophes that scientists predict will only get worse. Now the US has adopted a strategy of “managed retreat,” de Sherbinen said.
“The idea of ‘managed retreat’ is to implement a package of interventions such as home buyouts and re-zoning. In some cases managed retreat maeqeey not actually be a retreat — the place may be so valuable that you build flood barriers around it, for example, or take other measures to keep people in place.
“Places like the Netherlands have done that successfully for decades,” he said. “It’s not completely inconceivable. But in some cases, it may not be economically viable to protect the area.”
But while these efforts are continuing, de Sherbinin believes that they will never create a true safe haven for people within the US or elsewhere to completely protect them from the impacts of climate change.
“Climate change is with us to stay. The notion that we are going to find an ideal safe space where everyone can be perpetually safe from climate disasters is not going to be part of our 21st-century existence — or into the 22nd.
“We poked the beast, and it’s not going to stop affecting us.”
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