The world must act to protect climate change victims

Climate change is likely to lead to the killing and displacement of millions of people around the world. Sweden's new government has a great opportunity to bring the concept of environmental refugees to the world's attention, argues Fiona Rotberg of Uppsala University..

In the last weeks, there has been a flurry of reports in the media about international environmental issues and the global catastrophe that could result from inaction on climate change. This much needed discourse has been heartening.

Sir Nicholas Stern of Britain, for example, on October 30, released a damning review of the economics of climate change. Stern estimated that the costs of climate change range between 5% and 20% of global output over the next one to two centuries.

Last week, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan announced broad measures to help Africa address and adapt to climate change and environmental issues. The Economist reported that the violence that has ravaged Darfur is now spilling over its borders and that the underlying cause of the conflict in the region is due to conflict over scarce natural resources, such as water and land for grazing animals. The natural and physical world is different from how it once was.

A direct result of conflicts that arise from scarce natural resources, as in Darfur, will likely be more killing and more displaced people. It is commendable that some world leaders are addressing the local, national, and international need for action on environmental issues. However, the flurry of discourse has not adequately addressed the issue of such displaced people who will become the newest wave of refugees – environmental refugees.

Millions of people around the world depend on scarce natural resources for their very livelihoods. When there are fewer resources to go around, competition for them can often lead to violent conflicts within a country’s borders, and across borders.

These same people who depend on natural resources will be hit hard by global climate change; droughts will be longer, heat will be harsher, rainy seasons will be shorter; crops will be insignificant. This is the reality of the complex world with climate change. When they have nothing left to live on, where shall these people go?

Sweden’s new government has a vital opportunity to bring the concept of environmental refugees to the international agenda; to raise the issue within the European Union and the United Nations.

The 1951 United Nations Convention and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees provides sanctuary to persons at risk and in danger. Both of these instruments reflect the global consensus that human beings have fundamental rights. These are the only instruments at the global level that specifically regulate treatment of those who are compelled to leave their homes because of a rupture within their country of origin.

International refugee protection is as necessary today as it was in 1951. The definition of a refugee is rooted in the notion of persecution, which excludes the new reality of enforced flight of civilians due to environmental degradation, exacerbated by climate change.

A new definition must be devised to incorporate the concept of environmental refugees; a direct and unavoidable consequence of climate change and conflict associated with it. The Swedish government is well poised to contribute to the present environmental discourse, it can shepherd a new definition of refugees to include factors of today’s complex world.

Dr. Fiona J.Y. Rotberg is the Director of the Environmental Security in Asia project, at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Program, Eurasian Studies Department, Uppsala University. The views expressed in this article are her own.


Green Party leader: ‘Right-wing parties want to push us out of parliament’

Per Bolund, joint leader of Sweden's Green party, spoke for thirteen and a half minutes at Almedalen before he mentioned the environment, climate, or fossil fuels, in a speech that began by dwelling on healthcare, women's rights, and welfare, before returning to the party's core issue.

Green Party leader: 'Right-wing parties want to push us out of parliament'

After an introduction by his joint leader Märta Stenevi, Bolund declared that his party was going into the election campaign on a promise “to further strengthen welfare, with more staff and better working conditions in healthcare, and school without profit-making, where the money goes to the pupils and not to dividends for shareholders”. 

Only then did he mention the party’s efforts when in government to “build the world’s first fossil-free welfare state”. 

“We know that if we want welfare to work in the future, we must have an answer to our time’s biggest crisis: the threat to the environment and the climate,” he said.

“We know that there is no welfare on a dead planet. We need to take our society into a new time, where we end our dependency on oil, meet the threat to the climate, and build a better welfare state within nature’s boundaries, what we call a new, green folkhem [people’s home].” 

He presented green policies as something that makes cities more liveable, with the new sommargågator — streets pedestrianised in the summer — showing how much more pleasant a life less dependent on cars might be.  

He then said his party wanted Sweden to invest 100 billion kronor a year on speeding up the green transition, to make Sweden fossil fuel-free by 2030. 

“We talk about the climate threat because it’s humanity’s biggest challenge, our biggest crisis,” he said. “And because we don’t have much time.” 

In the second half of his speech, however, Bolund used more traditional green party rhetoric, accusing the other political parties in Sweden of always putting off necessary green measures, because they do not seem urgent now, like a middle-aged person forgetting to exercise. 

“We know that we need to cut emissions radically if we are even going to have a chance of meeting our climate goal, but for all the other parties there’s always a reason to delay,” he said. 

“We are now seeing the curtain go up on the backlash in climate politics in Sweden. All the parties have now chosen to slash the biofuels blending mandate which means that we reduce emissions from petrol and diesel step for step, so you automatically fill your tank in a greener way. Just the government’s decision to pause the  reduction mandate will increase emissions by a million tonnes next year.” 

The right-wing parties, he warned, were also in this election running a relentless campaign against the green party. 

“The rightwing parties seem to have given up trying to win the election on their own policies,” he said. “Trying to systematically push out of parliament seems to be their way of trying to take power. And they don’t seem above any means. Slander campaigns, lies, and false information have become every day in Swedish right-wing politics.” 

He ended the speech with an upbeat note. 

“A better, more sustainable world is possible. There is a future to long for. If you give us a chance then that future is much closer than you think!”

Read the speech here in Swedish and here in (Google Translated) English.