In the past few weeks alone, we have seen the physical, social and economic devastation wrought on some American cities and vulnerable communities across the Caribbean by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, and the death and destruction caused by monsoons across South Asia. The American people know from previous experience, such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005, that some people affected will be displaced from their homes forever. Many of these displaced people are drawn to cities, but the capacity to integrate these new arrivals in a manner consistent with their human rights and dignity is often woefully inadequate — reflecting an equally inadequate response from political leaders.
The profound injustice of climate change is that those who are most vulnerable in society, no matter the level of development of the country in question, will suffer most. People who are marginalized or poor, women, and indigenous communities are being disproportionately affected by climate impacts.
As with many of the most severe storms to impact communities in recent years – including in the US with Katrina, Sandy and Ike – it is the poorest people who have suffered the worst impacts from Harvey and Irma. The people who the climate justice movement is for are the people who have the least capacity to protect themselves, their families, their homes and their incomes from the impacts of climate change, and indeed climate action policies that are not grounded in human rights. These are also the people who have the hardest time rebuilding their lives in the wake of these more frequent and intense disasters as they do not have adequate access to insurance, savings or other livelihood options necessary to provide resilience. In many cases, families lose everything.
If we then consider the devastation wrought by Irma in the Caribbean, where poverty rates are much higher than the US, we begin to understand the great injustice of climate change. People living around the world, in communities which have never seen the benefits of industrialization or even electrification, face the harshest impacts of climate change and have the most limited capacity to recover.
And yet, in the US the debate as to whether climate change is real or not continues in mainstream discourse. Throughout the world, baseless climate denial has largely disappeared into the fringes of public debate as the focus has shifted to how countries should act to avoid the potentially disastrous consequences of unchecked climate change. For many years, the US has positioned itself as a global leader in science and technology and yet in seeking to leave or renegotiate the Paris Agreement, the current administration is taking a giant leap backwards, both in terms of science-based policy making and in terms of international solidarity and cooperation.
Given the recent storms and resulting devastation, one of the most pressing issues to be addressed regarding the rights of those most vulnerable to climate change is the need to ensure the necessary protections are in place for people displaced by worsening climate impacts. There can be no doubt that climate change is a driver of migration and migration owing to climate impacts will increase in the coming years. Increasingly severe and frequent catastrophic storms or slow onset events like recurrent drought, sea level rise or ocean acidification, will result in people’s livelihoods collapsing, forcing them to seek better futures elsewhere. The scale of potential future migration as a result of climate change must not be underestimated. In order to ensure that the global community is prepared to protect the wellbeing and dignity of people displaced by climate change, concrete steps must be taken now.