“Adaptation is also our business,” was the title of a side even this afternoon put on by members of the EU. The room was packed, and as we sat in rows and sweated, the presenters made some interesting and important points.
According to IPCC predictions, the Mediterranean is going to be one of the areas of the world most affected by climate change. Christina Narbona, Minister of Environment for Spain, pointed out that Spain is already experiencing massive dispalcement of population, severe droughts, a predicted 5-14% decrease in water resources in the 2030 horizon, and is also a developed nation which will be one of the first to receive migrants from Africa if and when the effects of more drastic climate change displaces them. Spain is also one of the only nations to have developed a NAPA (a National Adaptation Plan of Action). This includes trying to optimize water resources (currently Spain has very low water price and very high water consumption) and increase water resources. The plan also includes a lot of investment in research into future scenarios, which leaves me wondering about urgency and priority, two concepts which are difficult to concretize in this context because, in terms of the future, absolute certainty can never exist. The question and answer period brought an intelligent question to the minister: what about when adaptation plans undermine mitigation plans, such as the increased energy it would require to run desalinization plants to increase water supply? To this, the minister responded that there exists a program to produce renewable energy at the same rate as engergy conumption increases. (This, however, includes such things as hydro-electric dams, which wreak their own kind of environmental havoc, and on top of that, Spain has the second largest number of dams in the world.) The question of justice and equality also arises: Spain has the infrastructure to develop a NAPA, and compared to developing countries is very well off. However, like all nations, and perhaps (because of its location) moreso than other developed nations, it will be suffering from the predicted environmental changes as well. What is its responsibility to its own people and to those of other nations? What is everyone’s role in this world of changes? Big questions, and, like most big questions, probably unanswerable until we see what roles we take.
Francois Gemenne of the University of Liege pointed out the current and future problems of environmental refugees. Under the Geneva Convention, environmental refugees are not recognized. However, as Gemenne stated, recognition under Geneva probably wouldn’t meet the needs of environmental refugees (it is intended to protect those fleeing political turmoil), and anyway only applies to parties to the convention, which consists mostly of Northern states. According to the now-infamous Stern report, 200 million people could be permanently displaced by 2050, mostly due to rising sea levels (the Small Island Developing States (SIDS), those in the Arctic, and those living in coastal cities and floodplains). Village relocation, I found out, is already happening. For example, the US government apparently pays for trucks to come in to Arctic villages with cranes and physically move them.
The demographic, cultural, psychological, and resource burden of mass migrations is an overwhelming prospect. This is truly a human side to climate change. Although environmental factors have always and will always displace people, cause people suffering, as well as cause people times of great joy and prosperity (depending on how conducive the environment is to livelihood at the time), displacement- detachment from a place you feel is your home, disconnect from family and friends, loss of culture and language, increased potential for conflict between people who are different and feel they do not understand each other, increased strain on resources, the role of human emotions- will never be easy.
Gemenne proposed to extend the mandate of the UNHCR (High Commissioner for Refugees)- which was absent at this conference- to cover environmental refugees temporarily displaced. For the permanently displaced, he said, a “copycat of Kyoto” which consists of regional burden-sharing schemes- based on the polluter pays principle and on where the resources are- could be part of a solution. It’s Europe’s business, he said, because the EU needs to acknowledge its share of responsibility and needs to make massive shifts in immigration policy. (This is also entirely true of the U.S.)
And so we come back to it: the complexities of the challenge, the responsibility we share.