Law and human dignity

Law and human dignity

If you destroy it, they will come – climate change displacement and the Trump effect

Reuters/Carlos Barria

US President Donald Trump this week signed an executive order on “energy independence”. The order rescinds key elements of the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan.

Trump’s order lifts requirements placed on American states to slash carbon emissions. It characterises policies mindful of climate change as costly and harmful to American jobs.

However, as Trump strips back strategies to mitigate the impacts of climate change, some coastal communities in the US are planning for a “managed retreat” from sea-level rise. In other words, when mitigation attempts are abandoned, more communities will be forced into adaptation.

This state of affairs is both impractical and unjust. The scale of the human displacement that will flow from unmitigated climate change impacts is too great for managed retreat strategies. And countries – particularly high-emitting ones like the US – owe a moral obligation to commit to emissions reduction targets, even if they identify these as out of sync with short-term economic goals.

Trump puts words into action

But Trump’s most recent action was hardly unexpected. He has followed through with his campaign promise to focus attention elsewhere in environmental policy, given his view that:

There is still much that needs to be investigated in the field of ‘climate change’.

The image of Trump, flanked by joyous coal miners, signing this order and declaring “an end to the war on coal”, sends a chilling message to rest of the world.

The climate change denial movement in the US pervades the public sphere. Funded by donors ranging from Koch Industries and ExxonMobil to dozens of conservative foundations and think-tanks, an industry designed explicitly to confuse has been wildly successful.

However, as Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway argue in Merchants of Doubt:

Nobody can publish an article in a scientific journal claiming the sun orbits the earth, and for the same reason, you can’t publish an article in a peer-reviewed journal claiming there’s no global warming. Probably well-informed professional science journalists wouldn’t publish it either. But ordinary journalists repeatedly did.

Research conducted by Yale University reveals that although 71% of participants say they trust scientists about global warming, only 53% believe it is caused by human activity. The climate denial movement has convinced millions of the legitimacy of its junk science.

The impacts of climate change are already here

Whether through ignorance of science or a misguided belief in “America First”, the Trump administration intends to proceed full steam ahead on a trajectory that inevitably ends in the collapse of earth systems.

In a cruel twist, many of the countries most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change are on the lower end of emissions. Poor and vulnerable countries also command the least power to lobby for the radical changes necessary to protect their people.

Trump is clearly not concerned with anthropogenic climate change at this moment. However, the risk that millions will face climate-change-induced displacement represents a humanitarian catastrophe of unprecedented severity.

Climate change was this month identified as a source of great risk to national, global and human security by Trump’s own secretary of defence. Yet Trump’s strategy appears to be focused on short-term economic objectives, with an enhanced military capacity and tighter border protection to deal with the inevitable fallout.

The desire to protect privileges through the control of accumulated resources and economic opportunities is historically a significant driver to restrict the movement of people. A future with millions displaced by climate change will generate conflict around the world. And the most vulnerable populations will bear the greatest impact.

Climate change, displacement and human rights

As awareness has grown that climate change poses great risks to human security, an extensive body of literature has emerged to examine the human rights implications of climate change.

Some writers have engaged with the intersection of climate change-induced displacement and human rights. Jane McAdam’s work has been important in highlighting the urgent need for human rights analysis of displacement, particularly for Australia’s neighbouring Small Island Developing States in the Pacific.

The value of considering climate change impacts through a human rights lens is in revealing human stories, which can be obscured in scientific debates.

However, most of the existing literature fails to characterise climate displacement as a threat to collective human rights. A key concern in this context is the foundational right of self-determination. This right is protected by common Article 1(1) of the twin human rights covenants – the ICCPR and ICESCR:

All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.

Populations facing territory loss and forced displacement due to climate change also face losing their capacity to self-determine. International law as it stands is not equipped to protect populations forced to migrate internally or across borders.

Such challenges seem even more grave in light of Trump’s back-peddling on climate change policy. Retreat to parochial policymaking and refusal to acknowledge genuine global concerns deepens the incapacity of the international system to respond.

Reuters/David Gray

Acting today to protect those displaced tomorrow

Yet Trump’s regressive stance on climate change action will be perceived as a monumental shift from Barack Obama’s leadership on the issue. Critics argue the previous administration was simply pushing a green neoliberalism that will lead to the same environmental endpoint.

However, the extent to which we are locked into system collapse remains to be seen. The new administration would prefer to ignore the problem rather than participate in global efforts, flawed as they may be. This rejection of science, reason and moral obligation is an assault on an international consensus to tackle anthropogenic climate change.

It also represents a shift towards a future where borders could become ever more violent, and those most impacted by climate change are prevented from leaving the affected areas. We have already seen how border walls are both ineffective in stemming migration and produce great human tragedy.

The international community must embed binding human rights obligations in international treaties governing climate change impacts before it is too late. A lack of perceived real consequences is an enabler for the kind of decision-making emanating from the Trump administration. In this context, the circumstances of people facing displacement must be at the centre – rather than the periphery – of concern.