The 21st century is in the throes of unprecedented levels of human mobility. More people than ever before live in a country other than the one in which they were born. In 2015, their number surpassed 244 million, growing at a faster rate than the world’s population.
The recent New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, adopted during the 71st session of the United Nations General Assembly, highlighted the critical linkages between migration, environment and climate change.
According to the International Organisation for Migration, environmental factors have had an extensive impact on global migration flows, as people have historically abandoned places with unsettling or deteriorating conditions.
The patterns of migration differ according to the nature of climate impacts. When a typhoon strikes, people tend to move the shortest distance possible, but when entire countries are threatened by incremental sea level rise and saltwater intrusion, as in the Pacific Island states, people will tend to plan their move to neighbouring, higher volcanic islands on organised relocation schemes.
The scale of such flows, both internal and cross-border, is expected to rise as a result of accelerated climate change, with unprecedented impacts on lives and livelihoods.
According to a panel of Nasa scientists, global sea levels have risen nearly 8cm since 1992, with the Pacific experiencing a more rapid increase than other oceans. Sea levels have risen faster than they did 50 years ago and “it’s very likely to get worse”, according to one panel member.
A rise of around a metre by the end of the century now looks likely. For low-lying islands in the Pacific, this means coastal erosion, saltwater seeping into precious rainwater catchments and ruined crops. In May, Australian researchers revealed that five inhabited islands in the Pacific had disappeared due to rising seas and erosion, the first scientific confirmation of the impact of climate change on the Pacific coastlines. The submerged islands were uninhabited, but on two other islands, whole villages were destroyed and the population forced to relocate.
Recently the Commonwealth Secretariat launched an audacious initiative: Regenerative Development to Reverse Climate Change. An initial two-day meeting brought together biologists, ecologists, oceanographers, systems thinkers and other experts on carbon sequestration, circular economy and regenerative development.
The panel of experts was tasked by Commonwealth Secretary General Baroness Patricia Scotland with developing a carbon reduction programme that doesn’t just mitigate the impacts of climate change, but actually reverses its effects. The aim is to reframe climate change as an opportunity for transformative innovation rather than a response to inevitable hardship. The experts agreed: We can reverse climate change and implement all 17 sustainable development goals in the process.
Influential experts on climate action and global leaders in circular economy discussed carbon negative solutions to keep global warming below 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels and begin to lower greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. They explored symbiotic solutions between agro-ecology, permaculture, ecological engineering, cooperative organisations, open source production and innovation, shared governance and ethical investments. Some sessions focused on big picture ideas, looking at Earth as a complex dynamic system.
“Life creates conditions conducive to life. Reversing climate change challenges us to collaborate in all our diversity to redesign the human impact on Earth from degeneration to regeneration” said Dr Daniel Wahl, author of Designing Regenerative Cultures.
As a most richly diverse and inclusive international organisation, the Commonwealth is positioning as an effective champion of efforts to address the existential climate threat of its members, by reducing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, reversing land degradation and putting carbon where it belongs.
The urgency needs to be met with strategies to scale-up efforts. A key component will be to train multipliers with the practical skills and analytic depth to train further generations.
The Chinese-American documentary film-maker and ecologist John Dennis Liu suggests we should begin to measure success based on increases in biomass, biodiversity, the amount of organic matter in healthy soils. Simply put, we need a new focus that makes quality of life, rather than open-ended economic growth, the key driver for future thinking.
Mass human migration will be one of the defining characteristics of the 21st century, shaping the international agenda for years to come. Among the Commonwealth’s 52 members, climate change is the most urgent challenge. The Commonwealth can lead the way by working across policy and discipline areas to restore our land and sea ecosystems and address migration. For millions of island inhabitants, it is a race against time, a race we must win. May East is chief executive, Gaia Education