Climate change is one of the main drivers of migration and will be increasingly so. It will even have a more significant role in the displacement of people than armed conflicts, which today cause major refugee crises.
This was the warning sounded by Ovais Sarmad, the deputy executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), who was in Buenos Aires to participate in a meeting of international representatives and senior Argentine government officials in mid-May to analyze the impacts of this phenomenon.
“One example I use is that recently, there was migration of refugees and migrants in Europe because of the Syrian conflict and other conflicts in Sub-Saharan Africa. That is a big political issue,” Sarmad told Inter Press Service (IPS).
“But the climate-change impact will make 1 million look like a small number. Because a hundred [million] or 400 million people live in developing countries in low-lying areas, in cities which are very close to the sea. If sea level rises, then people will have to move.”
Sarmad, from India, is a specialist in commerce and financial management, with postgraduate studies in London, who, for 27 years, worked at the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). He was chief of staff to the IOM director general until last year, when UN Secretary-General António Guterres appointed him as No. 2 at the UNFCCC.
“This movement won’t be just national; people will be moving to other countries. One of the examples is Kiribati, a small island in the Pacific with 100,000 people that will disappear in a few years’ time. What will happen with this population?” Sarmad asked in a meeting with four journalists, including IPS.
Can one speak in a strict sense of climate refugees? The international community has not yet validated that definition, but Sarmad believes that the issue must be considered due to realities, such as the sea-level rise, increasingly destructive hurricanes or persistent droughts.
“In many countries around the world, farmers are the most affected by droughts and they will move. With their cattle, with their children or whatever.… And then…they won’t have many places to go. We have only one planet and they can’t go to space,” the expert said.
In that sense, he considered that the world should be “supportive” and “not close the doors” to those who are displaced due to extreme weather events.
The Indian diplomat was the keynote speaker at the meeting “T20 and Climate Change: Planning, Risk and Response Facing the Emergency,” organized within the framework of the so-called Think 20 (T20), which brings together academic organizations and researchers of the Group of 20 (G-20).
The T20 is organized in 10 working groups, one of which deals with climate change and infrastructure for development.
Its mission is to submit public-policy recommendations to the G-20, the group of industrialized and emerging countries that encompasses 66 percent of the world’s population and makes up 85 percent of global GDP.
Last December Argentina assumed the one-year presidency of the G-20, which will conclude at the end of the year with the summit that will bring together the world’s main government leaders in Buenos Aires.
The issue of climate change is particularly controversial in the G-20, because last year, under the German presidency, the United States did not adhere to the Action Plan on Climate and Energy Growth, which was endorsed by the rest of the member-countries, leading many to conclude that the G-20 had become the Group of 19+1.
Argentina wants to be seen as taking an active stance in the battle against climate change, although it did not make the issue one of the G-20 priorities for this year, to avoid conflicts.
The main themes chosen by the government of Mauricio Macri are: the future of work, infrastructure for development and a sustainable food future.
Sergio Bergman, the Argentine minister of environment and sustainable development, acknowledged in the T20 meeting that Argentina needs to fulfill its commitments undertaken within the Paris Agreement on climate change.
That binding agreement that establishes global measures to combat climate change was adopted during the 21st Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC in December 2015, and was considered a landmark achievement, until the US administration of Donald J. Trump withdrew from it in 2017.
Argentina needs to maintain those commitments, among other things, because it is applying for membership in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
“We want to join the OECD and for that we have to take on our obligations and sit for an exam,” said Bergman, who added: “After what happened in Germany last year, the challenge is how we get the 20 members of the G-20 into the final document.”
Also participating in the T20 meeting was Argentine Defence Minister Oscar Aguad, who to some extent played host since it was held at the National Defence University. This state institution is responsible for the training of military and civilians and climate change is one of its areas of research.
Sarmad’s proposals in Buenos Aires made it clear that the goal of the UNFCCC is for Argentina, as chairman of the G-20, to promote commitments in the field of climate change.
“G-20 must have political leadership and include in this year’s recommendations that the Paris Agreement must be implemented. Otherwise, it will be a nice agreement, but it will stay on a shelf,” he said in the keynote address during the event before about a hundred attendees, many of them public officials.
Sarmad said that, despite the international community’s efforts to combat climate change, there was an increase in greenhouse-gas emissions in 2017, after a decrease in the previous three years.
The reason, he added, has been an increase in the consumption of fossil fuels.
This was confirmed by another participant in the T20 meeting, Youba Sokona from Mali, an environmental expert and the vice chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
Sokona said that although the cost of renewable energies has gone down in recent years, fossils fuels are still cheaper.
“The cost of renewable energies is not only expensive for developing countries. Even Germany, when it decided to put a brake on nuclear energy, had to turn to coal,” said Sokona, who pointed out that the IPCC faces funding problems because of the withdrawal of US economic support.
“It’s interesting that we have these conferences to talk about climate change, but there are many things we can do. We must take action because there’s much suffering around the world because of climate change that affects especially women and children, the most vulnerable populations.”
There’s no other issue at an international level, besides security and nuclear proliferation, more important than climate change,” he said.