Science, governance and ethics in environmental migration
Arthur Lyon Dahl
International Environment Forum
Keywords: environmental migration, carrying capacity, community education
Presented as a poster at the
Planet Under Pressure 2012 Conference
London, UK, 26-29 March 2012
in the session on
Governing global environmental change-induced migration across scales
From a scientific perspective, rapid global environmental change is altering the capacity of different regions to support human populations. It will be necessary to shift excess populations from regions with insufficient carrying capacity to those with the environmental resources to support increased populations, requiring better objective scientific assessment of “under-populated” regions while respecting the sustainability needs of the Earth system including biodiversity conservation. Just as the globalization of the economy required the creation of the World Trade Organization to negotiate a lowering of trade barriers, so will the pressures of environmental migration require the creation of a similar organization to negotiate a lowering of immigration barriers and the equitable allocation of migrants. Innovations such as allowing the collective migration of whole communities retaining their institutions, cultures and lifestyles will be needed to respect human rights while balancing both cultural diversity and integration. Since most human rights violations today are against immigrants, and the issue is politically explosive, a major effort is required to educate receiving communities about the positive dimensions of immigration. Tools for building a local sense of community among those from diverse origins will be required. This must be based on the ethical foundations of solidarity, respect and unity in diversity, reinforced with cultural and religious teachings about receiving and honouring guests and strangers. The environmental migration challenge will thus require the creation of international institutions, a fundamental transformation of national attitudes and management mechanisms, and a strong grass-roots community focus in close collaboration.
From a scientific perspective, rapid global environmental change is altering the capacity of different regions to support human populations (Brown 2008). Climate change and resource degradation, often interacting with rapid population growth, are the principle drivers of changes in local carrying capacity. Agricultural productivity is expected to decline in many warmer regions, often with high populations. The poor have the least resilience and will be most impacted (Richardson et al. 2009). Sea level rise is presently estimated to reach 80 cm to 2 meters by 2100, making low-lying coastal areas and coralline islands permanently uninhabitable.
Given the above acceleration of environmental change reducing regional carrying capacities in an increasingly populated world, population displacements are expected to increase drastically. Climate change is not the unique cause. The environment tends to produce complex emergencies with multiple causal factors causing migration (Kolmannskog 2008, Gemenne et al. 2011).
Current estimates for climate-induced population displacement range from 25 million to 1 billion people by 2050 (Brown 2008). Since the poor have the least mobility, displacements will often initially be internal within countries, except for small island developing states. This will create other problems, demonstrating that the present framework of national boundaries permeable to the movement of capital, goods and services but not people, needs to be questioned.
Scientifically, in order to minimize human suffering, it would be logical to shift excess populations from regions with insufficient carrying capacity to those with the environmental resources to support increased populations. This paper explores some of the dimensions of what would be required to achieve this.
The first requirement is a better understanding of the human carrying capacity of different regions of the world, both in terms of the availability of essentials such as water, food production capacity, waste removal, and living space, as well as more subjective aspects such as living standards, cultural requirements, education and employment creation. This would help to estimate the number of people needing to be removed from overstressed regions and the urgency of organizing their migration. The most politically sensitive issue will be better objective scientific assessment of “under-populated” regions with the capacity to receive migrants, while respecting the sustainability needs of the Earth system including maintenance of ecosystem services and biodiversity conservation.
Just as the globalization of the world economy required the creation of the World Trade Organization to negotiate a lowering of trade barriers, so will the pressures of environmental migration require the creation of a similar organization to negotiate a lowering of immigration barriers and the equitable allocation of migrants, with similar dispute settlement procedures and the ability to enforce its decisions (Dahl 2010).
The present international legal vacuum around environmental migrants, who do not fit present definitions of refugees and will never be able to return to their homes, needs to be filled. For example, David Hodgkinson has been developing proposals for a Convention for Climate Change Displaced Persons (http://www.ccdpconvention.com).
The scale of the problem requires a higher level of international action. Since poor people and poor countries will be the most effected, financial sources and mechanisms will be required based on an equitable determination of common but differentiated responsibilities, especially with reference to historical responsibility for climate change and trade-driven resource degradation.
Procedures for identifying environmental migrants and organizing the movement and resettlement of large numbers with minimal bureaucracy will be necessary. Innovations such as allowing the collective migration of whole communities retaining their institutions, cultures and lifestyles will be needed to respect human rights while balancing both cultural diversity and integration.
While forced environmental migration is a major challenge for those so displaced, it is also for the receiving communities. Welcoming strangers into a community, finding them lodging, work, education, social security and a new set of human relationships, requires a major effort. Most human rights violations today are against immigrants, and the issue is politically explosive. Especially in times of economic difficulties and insecurity, there is a tendency to xenophobia, often exploited by populist political movements.
To counter this, receiving communities need to be educated about the positive dimensions of immigration (IEF 2010). In ageing societies, immigrants provide a young labour force to support pension schemes. They bring innovation, entrepreneurship and cultural diversity. Rather than forcing them into ghettos, they need to be welcomed into the community and appreciated for what they bring.
Tools for building a local sense of community among those from diverse origins will be required. This can include opportunities to discover shared values through community study circles or devotional gatherings, and activities for children and young people in moral education and social action (BIC 2010). The aim should be to help communities to mobilize their own efforts to respond to their concerns and problems and to achieve their development goals, with all parts of the community empowered and working together.
At the root of this problem is the ethical challenge to overcome prejudice and the forces of separation and selfish interests, and to acknowledge that a globalized world requires a global vision and common values. Action to address environmental migration must be based on the ethical foundations of solidarity, respect and unity in diversity. Many partners need to be enlisted in this dialogue. The Earth Charter provides a secular framework of values for a sustainable society. Many cultures and religions have teachings about receiving and honouring guests and strangers.
It is at this fundamental level that bridges can be built across cultural differences, recognizing our common humanity and the contribution that each one can make to community life and the advancement of society.
Given the magnitude of the coming environmental migration challenge, it is urgent to take anticipatory and preventive action rather than waiting for human suffering to force us to act. This will require the creation of international institutions, a fundamental transformation of national attitudes and management mechanisms for immigration, and a strong grass-roots focus on community building. Only action at all these levels in close collaboration will allow us to avoid repeated humanitarian emergencies with all the suffering and expense that they imply, and to turn a potential crisis into a development opportunity.
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Last updated 28 March 2012