In the executive summary of the 2009 Care publication In Search of Shelter: Mapping the Effects of Climate Change on Human Migration and Displacement I read the following statement: “Policy decisions made today will determine whether migration becomes a matter of choice amongst a range of adaptation options, or merely a matter of survival due to a collective failure by the international community to provide better alternatives”. Climate migrants or refugees – the vocabulary seems still undecided and constitutes a juridical debate which should, in my opinion, take into account the intimate connection between climate change and the violent conflicts it involves, thus making the expression “refugees” adequate – are already on the move today and some estimate their number may grow to 200 million by 2050. They represent an enormous challenge to the international community and (will) call upon the resources of many humanitarian organizations, amongst which the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS).
The JRS mission statement with its threefold focus – to accompany, to serve, to advocate – may provide us with some insight as to how to address the realities of climate migrants/refugees. These three verbs do not only indicate that we have a responsibility to care for refugees, to assist them in their own experiences and to make their voices heard. They also point out that the encounter with refugees and their experiences changes all of us, that refugees and migrants in their pain reveal the need to change our world if they are to live with dignity, that their experiences as if through a broken prism shed light on steps that we all can and have to take to build a more dignified and sustainable world. This is also the case with people who are on the move because of climate change and environmental deterioration: they show us what an inhospitable environment means for people and how it involves them in conflicts over meager resources, they remind us of the conditions to be put in place to make this earth a home to all of us: we have to mitigate not only our greenhouse gas emissions but also our exorbitant and selfish consumerist ways of life as well as our tendency to create safe havens for “our” people as over against the “others”; we have to share burdens in working out adaptation resilience, particularly for those who suffer most. Environmental refugees or migrants, therefore, are not merely a barometer indicating the facts and realities of climate change, they also point towards greater solidarity and sustainable patterns of life and show us that, one day, each one of us may become one such refugee for forgetting our embeddedness in nature and the fact that we depend upon one another for dignified life. By being present with the refugees, by listening to their experiences, by learning to speak their voice, JRS people transmit an experience of conversion that may change the world. Climate migrants/refugees lead us into a similar experience of conversion that will help us to address climate change in a very real and effective way. In the wound, there is blood of life.
I was most impacted today by an intervention of the delegate from Tuvalu during today’s first plenary session. It can be viewed on the COP15 website (from 0:02:53 to 0:09:30). It was a passionate and emotional intervention, but at the same time it was very clear: the situation is very serious and our survival is at stake, but an answer depends upon us all, and more particularly upon decisions made in the US Senate. This insistence on the seriousness and urgency of the climate change crisis, in which life and death are at stake, touches me deeply. Moreover, Tuvalu’s delegate admitted, and he had tears in his eyes when he said it, that he got up this morning weeping – this is a crisis that moves us profoundly, touches our guts and, therefore, can bring the best, the most vulnerable, but also the worst and the most aggressive in us to the surface. These inner movements have become part of the debate. To me this indicates that the climate change crisis is, at its core, a process of decision making that requires not only necessary and sound science, economics and politics, but also discernment at the level of what we deeply want and what deeply fits us as human beings sharing a planet, and even better: as a planet that has given in itself through a long evolution the capacity to discern and decide.
CAN (Climate Action Network) is a network of NGOs involved in climate change work and an important non-party actor in COP15. Amongst COP15 webcasts, one finds also the daily CAN International Press Conference. They are worthwhile following, as they present us with the evolution of the conversations, consultations and diplomatic efforts. They also offer a kind of benchmark program on what to work towards for the negotiations in COP15. In today’s press conference, they stressed the importance of “Global Climate Action Day”, held all over the world. These events show a worldwide commitment to addressing the climate change crisis and signify a real call to COP15 and the politicians who will take the decisions.
My impressions after one week in Copenhagen are difficult to formulate precisely. It seems that negotiations are going on and it is a fact that some draft texts circulate. I feel frustrated because of the one sided and narrow economic and market logic that is being used here, but I am also happily surprised that there are voices reacting against this and pointing out that more will be needed to reach a sustainable agreement that will allow all of us to mitigate our climate change drivers and to adapt to the consequences of climate change that we cannot anymore avoid. At the same time, I think that what was originally planned as a conference of parties, has – because of the seriousness of the crisis – grown into an event of worldwide significance and into a summit of world leaders and heads of state. At this moment, it looks as if there are very high expectations and as if everything is still possible; ultimately, these heads of state will commit. This reveals at a “higher” level something that is clear at grassroot level (cf. the worldwide actions today): we face a serious, threatening worldwide crisis, which requires worldwide collaboration for its resolution. Moreover, although many of the concerns at COP15 are economic and political, I am convinced that in the course of the next week moral leadership will play a far greater role than has been the case until now – that is also the main reason in my eyes why it is important that world leaders and heads of state be present in Copenhagen. This moral leadership will be necessary to push forward difficult and painful decisions that acknowledge the limits of our planet and seek to heal the injustices that have grown out of greedy and consumerist behavior that has lost its value bearings. The moral leadership will also be necessary to face the consequences and sufferings that have already become unavoidable (the scientists would say: “to which our world is already committed”) and that are already very real as the climate refugees and the inhabitants of Tuvalu do not fail to tell us.
Well, let’s say that this is what I hope. Therefore, I think it is a pity that religions are only marginally or tangentially present in the Bella Center – they do not seem to be a serious conversation partner at the level where decisions are being taken. The issue is not that there should be a religious conversion, but rather that the resources found in religious experiences for discernment, vision, hope, planetary connectedness and the art of dealing with deep suffering, may offer opportunities for developing a shared vision and commitment, may help us to address worldwide injustice, and may lead us to change profoundly and rapidly our unacceptable life styles and worldviews.
I was glad, yesterday, at COP15 to discover a stand of CARE, CIDSE and Caritas Internationalis. I was particularly interested by one of CARE’s publications: In Search of Shelter: Mapping the Effects of Climate Change on Human Migration and Displacement. In a world that increasingly suffers from climate change effects, migration and displacement will quickly become even more pressing issues than they are already today – the number of people in the care of UNHCR will spiral up at a very fast pace. This is one of the major areas for adaptation, and an area where the churches and their NGOs, such as the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), can really make a difference. Political decisions have to be taken today, e.g. concerning the juridical and legal framework that will be used. The churches and church organisations have to do their utmost best to foster a sense of international solidarity that will allow people to accept foreigners and to share their resources with them in an equitable way. Environmental migrants and refugees show a very human face of the impact of global climate change: here we look climate change and its worst effects right in the eyes.