There Are No Inevitable Victims of Climate Change: Uphold the Dignity of Men and Women on the Front Lines

Mary Robinson writes in the Huffington Post: For me, it is the injustice of the impacts of climate change and the resultant undermining of human rights that motivates my work on climate justice. The impacts of this change are being felt hardest by those people who have done the least to cause the climate crisis -- including the citizens of small island states and vulnerable coastal communities.

The people and communities on the front lines of climate change have benefitted least from our traditional development paradigm and have least capacity to recover from the shocks that the changing climate brings. This is unacceptable and must be remedied, starting with a strong and legally binding agreement in Paris. At the opening of this COP 21 in Paris, I was struck by the how much the world leaders talked about those who are very vulnerable, the justice issues and the need for fairness. Those speeches would make a wonderful climate change agreement! I hope the negotiators in Paris have been mandated to realise such a fair climate agreement, that they have they been told that their priority is to be fair to all.

Because climate change affects us all in all areas of our lives. Climate change is a threat multiplier; it aggravates poverty and undermines all aspects of human development and human security.

A growing world population and increasing resource scarcity, coupled with rising global temperatures, will amplify the pre-existing drivers of migration. It would be wise to take a longer term view when responding to the current crisis, as it is likely to be the start of ongoing strategy to manage human mobility in the context of climate change.

The fundamental tools for ensuring that human migration is a safe journey with dignity are human rights. Human rights, from procedural rights such as participation and access to information, to substantive rights such as the rights to food, water and shelter – are the safeguards we enjoy as individuals when we move voluntarily or as a last resort.

The people of Kiribati are coming to terms with the increasing likelihood of displacement because rising sea levels threaten to submerge their islands. Their President, Anote Tong, is doing everything he can to avoid this eventuality, he has even discussed the possibility of floating the islands, however he has adopted a policy of “migration with dignity” so that if his people do have to leave their homeland, they will be equipped with skills that will allow them to integrate more easily into the receiving communities.

When Eleanor Roosevelt and her commission drew up the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, it would have been unimaginable that whole countries would go out of existence because of human induced climate change. The same applies to the 1951 Refugee Convention, and even its 1967 Protocol — the governments that drew up these agreements could never have imagined that climate change would trigger the displacement and migration of people. We now need to use the benefits of hindsight to design a new climate regime that is grounded in human rights and informed by science so that it stands the test of time. We must uphold the dignity of the men and women on the front lines of climate change by insisting there are no inevitable victims.

The only way to avoid the type of last resort migration the Republic of Kiribati, and the millions of other people around the world made increasingly vulnerable as warming increases, is planning for, is to act now to phase out carbon emissions by 2050 in order to stay well below 2oC and preferably 1.5oC. Hence the vital importance of the Paris Agreement to set this objective and catalyse the international cooperation needed to ensure that ALL countries, regardless of their level of development, can deliver ambitious climate actions. And to make sure that we don’t leave our human rights commitments outside the door when we design climate actions, we need to frame the agreement in human rights so that people are empowered and engaged rather than excluded and disenfranchised.

Of course, the impacts of climate change are already being felt; global average surface temperatures have already passed one degree of warming. As global temperatures increase, so too does the need for adaptation. Migration, within a country or across borders is an effective adaptation strategy and these strategies must be understood and planned for as part of adaptation planning.

We also know that there are limits to adaptation. Explicit recognition of loss and damage in the new agreement is critical to assure the most vulnerable countries that they will not be abandoned by the global community should climate impacts become too severe.

I come from an island nation in which migration is a reality known to many. We are a country of just over four and a half million people, but 80 million people world-wide can claim Irish decent — the Irish Diaspora. Diaspora, in its meaning of dispersal or scattering, includes the many ways, not always chosen, that people have left the island of Ireland. As President of Ireland I kept a light in the window of the Presidential residence, Áras an Uachtaráin, as a symbolic beacon to remind those that left Ireland that they could still reconnect with their homeland. The great tragedy of climate change is that, for those leaving land being inundated by rising sea levels, return is not an option.

To me, the human face of climate change is women such as Ursula Rakova, whom I have come to know and who is here at COP21 representing her community. Ursula is leading the resettlement of her community from the Carteret Islands to Papua New Guinea because of rising sea levels. Ursula’s people are amongst those who have contributed least to the problem of climate change yet they are the ones who must make a new home, find new livelihoods, new schools. Despite the upheaval of the transition — Ursula explains that all this is manageable. But there is such a sadness in her eyes when she talks about having to leave the home of the bones of her ancestors. Our task is to make sure that as few people as possible are forced to leave their land because of climate change.

This post was first published in the Huffington Post on 7 December 2015. It is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and The B Team, around the U.N.’s 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) in Paris (Nov. 30-Dec. 11).