“To Me, Climate Change Is a Moral Issue”


This interview was originally published by the GFMD Civil Society Programme.


Kayly Ober is Senior Advocate and Program Manager of the Climate Displacement Program at Refugees International, an NGO that advocates on behalf of refugees and displaced people worldwide. We talked with Ms. Ober at the Quito Summit of the Global Forum on Migration and Development. In the following interview, she explains the impact of climate change on the displacement of populations and how it should be addressed.

What do we mean by climate change-related displacement?

[Kayly Ober] This is actually not so straight-forward an issue. As an academic, I would like to say that climate change is rarely the only reason why someone is displaced. Often, climate change exacerbates an already precarious situation. It may tip the balance for someone deciding to migrate.

There are of course fairly clear-cut cases of displacement related to a climate change event, for example after a really impactful event, like a cyclone.

In the case of so-called ‘slow-onset impacts’, such as sea-level rise, the link to climate displacement can be clear. Projections for sea level rise tell us that by 2050 many low-lying islands, and even major metropolitan areas, will be inundated. In that case, it could be argued that the eventual movement of people is climate-related.

Why is it important to look at climate change-related displacement?

To me personally, climate change is a moral issue. Using a wider lens, right now there are intense political discussions globally, looking at who should be responsible and what kind of actions need to be taken to mitigate the effects of climate change. I think that in this sense, climate change-related displacement gives a human face to that discussion.

It’s important to focus on this ‘human aspect’ because often when we talk about climate change we discuss very abstract things, like how many parts per million of carbon there are in the atmosphere, or how many degrees warmer the planet will be. What we don’t talk about as much and what should instead be center-stage, are the effects that will be felt by communities on the ground, especially those who are already fairly vulnerable or living in a situation in which one more thing would really make their life and livelihoods much more difficult.

It is important that we talk about this, because it is a moral responsibility for those who have emitted carbon to understand the effects that their actions have had and have today.

We need to be worried about climate change and its effects, including population displacement. We also need to be looking at long-term effects and at how we can build resilience of communities in the long-term. Going back to the example of slow-onset sea level rise: we have not yet seen a dramatic enough sea level rise that has already led to the displacement of people. But what we can see is the beginnings. We can see saltwater intrusion into fields used for agriculture, for example, which is making it harder to plant crops, and, if you are a subsistence farmer, to eke out a living as a consequence. And if we don’t act swiftly, in the near future we will have to deal with the fact that sea levels will be too high for certain areas, and people will simply lose their lands. And what will be the consequences of that?

Can we already see some cases of people being displaced because of environmental disasters linked to climate change?

This brings me back to the difference between immediate disastrous events and slow-onset climate change. So, obviously, after cyclones, like Kenneth and Idai in Mozambique, or Dorian in the Bahamas, we saw hundreds of thousands of people displaced. So that was an immediate population movement directly linked to a climate change-related event. Science is improving all the time, so we are getting closer to be able to attribute how a specific event is linked to climate change, so this is becoming easier to say. We can also say that there is a tenuous link with the Syrian conflict and the displacement associated with it. After a record number of years of drought in the country, people started moving to cities to seek economic opportunities, so this contributed to building up a lot of pressure, which is one of the factors that erupted into war. But again, we cannot, and we must not only blame climate change. As a global society, and governments especially, we have the ability to react and to fund or support adaptive efforts. And it’s when governments fail to do that, that we really have a problem.

What can we do, as a society, and what can we ask our governments to do, to address climate change and related displacement?

I would say that, first and foremost, we should think about the end goal, which is that we want people to be able to make the decision if they want to move or not. And if they do decide to move, it shouldn’t be under duress. It should be when they want to, and to the destination they want to reach, and it should be safe. I think that is the same argument that migrants’ rights activists would make. On the other hand, if we want to give people the ability to stay, that means that we need to invest in climate-resilient infrastructure and climate-resilient agriculture to the degree that we can. And if we reach a certain threshold in which that is not viable anymore, we need alternative livelihood options that are not so dependent on climate-related events like rainfall. When it comes to being able to move in a safe way, that means that migrants need options. They need to be able to access different forms of protection, which include but are not limited to humanitarian protection, in the case of post-disaster for example. It also means having more labor migration opportunities. The Pacific is leading the way in creating these labor migration mechanisms so that people in the region can move with dignity to Australia or to New Zealand. Ultimately we need some sort of mechanism that appreciates or understands the fact that climate change is just as impactful sometimes to people’s lives and to their ability to make a living or to live in dignity as situations of violence and persecution can be, which are protected under the 1951 Refugee Convention.

Why should we care about climate change and its possible effects on population movements?

Because they affect everybody. And we can already see these effects. If we talk with someone from an older generation, they will say clearly, “We used to be able to farm consistently, we used to be able to fish consistently, and that’s not happening anymore.” Do we want to live in a kind of world in which people are not able to make a living or live a dignified life? I would argue against it, and I would also argue that the effects of climate change aren’t just visible in the so-called “global South”. This is not just a “global South” issue and it is not about people moving from the “global South” to the “global North”. This is about people all over the world living the way that they would like to live, and having a stable, secure life.