Front Line Solutions for Global Challenges
The world’s climate is rapidly and violently changing in ways that are likely to make significant areas where people are currently living completely uninhabitable and dramatically reducing the populations that other areas can accommodate. While there are real and meaningful things that developed nations can and should be doing right now to dramatically reduce emissions of greenhouse gasses to dampen the effects of the climate change, poor communities on the front lines of the climate crisis are already facing an overwhelming onslaught of superstorms, floods, droughts, and rising sea levels.
Anthropogenic climate change is truly a global challenge that will require global action, particularly from the countries most culpable in generating the climate crisis. In 2010, in the aftermath of the failed climate talks in Copenhagen during the 15th UN Conference of the Parties, representatives from developing countries around the world and thousands of civil society organizations gathered in Cochabamba, Bolivia for the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth to develop the Peoples Agreement platform demanding that developing countries take dramatic action to reduce carbon emissions, eliminate restrictive immigration policies to offer a decent life to people forced to migrate due to climate change, and create an adaptation fund to compensate developing countries for current and future damages and support local adaptation measures .
In the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, developed countries agreed to set a goal of contributing a combined $100 billion dollars per year to support developing countries in sustainable development, climate change mitigation and adaptation. The agreement fell short, however, on offering any sort of protection for climate migrants, sidestepping the issue by developing a task force to develop recommendations on displacement . In the following years, however, even the modest steps forward agreed upon in the Paris Agreement were eroded as the US withdrew from the agreement and developed countries fell short on their financial commitments, even after attempting to game the rules of the agreement by including loans and non-climate related contributions towards the $100 billion target .
While the developed countries who are responsible for the climate crisis certainly have a role in financing climate change mitigation and adaptation, decisions about how to implement adaptation measures must be left to the people who are directly impacted. In one particularly egregious financing mechanism, the reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+) developed countries are allowed to ‘offset’ their own carbon emissions by ‘paying’ developing forest-rich countries to preserve their forest lands. These payments, then, entitle developed countries to dictate how forests are to be preserved, which has generally translated to forcing forest-dependent indigenous people from their lands to make way for externally-imposed forestry practices .
In the face of a rising tides of climate change people around the world are facing down the climate crisis, bracing for the blow, making plans and taking action to adapt to the changing world. By doing so they are not just finding solutions to an impending crisis, they are reclaiming control over their own future. The I-Kiribati are deploying a sophisticated program to maintain their identity, culture, and history as they prepare to put themselves for employment overseas. But the I-Kiribati’s futures are not dictated for them, it will be up to each family and individual to decide on the future that matches with their abilities, needs, and aspirations. It was not some outside force that decided that the Netwok village would be moved, the villagers voted to move—four times—and they worked tirelessly to devise a feasible relocation strategy and demand the resources they needed to move. By embracing their ancestors’ migratory traditions and moving to higher ground, Newtok villagers are disrupting a 500-year history of erasing native cultures. As the delta regions of Vietnam flood and are threatened by increasing salinization Vietnamese farmers are moving to higher ground, creating even more resilient conditions than before and reducing rates of rural poverty.
To be certain, the climate crisis is causing a violent disruption to the lives of people living on the front lines. But by recognizing the coming threat and having the courage, creativity, and imagination to develop bold plans to move entire villages or reorganize an agricultural production in one of the world’s most populous countries, people on the front lines of the climate crisis are staring down the rising tides and creating better futures for themselves and their families.
While the specific adaptation and migration programs adopted by communities that have already been forced to respond to changing climates may not be immediately transferable to the innumerable other communities that will face dramatically changing environmental conditions in the coming decades, some commonalities are instructive. In each case, plans were developed and implemented by the countries and the people who would ultimately live through these changes, not by an outside force. Although the brunt of the cost and the pain of relocating and adapting was born by the communities themselves, financial support from industrialized nations has played an important role in facilitating the implementation of the plans. Additionally, while national or community-level planning has created options for migration and adaptation in the case of Kiribati and Vietnam, individuals and their families were able to exercise autonomy in finding the most appropriate solution for their individual circumstances. In the case of the much smaller Netwok village, the wholesale relocation a village, the move was the result of a clear and overwhelming will of the entire village following four affirmative votes and years of self-advocacy for the move.
As the climate crisis deepens, we can expect more and more communities around the world to be faced with dramatic changes to their local environments. As the experience in the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina reminds us, waiting until disaster hits to adapt can be incredibly costly, in both money and human life. In the face of immeasurable challenges, people around the world are asserting agency and developing people-driven dynamic plans for adaptation and migration that meet the needs and the aspirations of their communities.
Industrialized nations can play an important role in supporting this adaptation by heeding the demands of people from around the developing world laid out in the People’s Agreement: taking aggressive action to slow the crisis and lessen the blow of climate change by cutting carbon emissions dramatically and immediately, eliminating barriers to migration for people impacted by the climate crisis, and providing funding to support the adaptation and migration efforts of people living on the front lines of the climate crisis. But the brilliant work of the people in Kiribati, the Newtok Village, and Vietnam show that developing powerful and creative strategies for climate adaptation and migration can—and should—be led by the communities that are on the front lines of the climate crisis.