Q&A: 'Climate Change Will Soon Make Millions Homeless'

  • Stefania Milan interviews MAURIZIO GUBBIOTTI of Legambiente (florence)
  • Inter Press Service

'For the first time, environmental refugees have outnumbered refugees escaping from war,' Legambiente international coordinator Maurizio Gubbiotti tells IPS. 'Environmental refugees are the real emergency of the future. And there is a devastating social emergency behind the environmental and climatic crisis we face today.'

Gubbiotti spoke to IPS at the Terra Futura (Earth of the Future) meeting held in Florence this week on good practices in environmental and economic sustainability. Excerpts from the interview:

IPS: How serious is the crisis for environmental refugees?

Maurizio Gubbiotti: The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees foresees about 200-250 million environmental refugees by 2050. Our report shows there is a major crisis already.

It is really difficult to assess the real dimension of the problem, because a single hurricane can have a dramatic impact on the figures. The tropical cyclone Nargis which devastated Myanmar in May 2008, with a death toll of 140,000, created 800,000 displaced persons.

IPS: What are the areas most at risk?

MG: All the areas that are already quite poor and fragile. The African continent, and costal areas in Asia, in particular Bangladesh and the Pacific islands. But also the Mediterranean region and Latin America are at risk.

And the Maldives islands, where 85 percent of the biggest island is threatened by rising seas, and about 300,000 people will have to move soon. In French Guyana, we foresee about 600,000 environmental refugees in the coming years.

IPS: Where will these people go?

MG: About 300 people each month die trying to reach the borders of Europe crossing the Mediterranean. We notice them only when they migrate to industrialised countries. But actually most environmental refugees can only travel to surrounding countries, aggravating the situation of other poor countries.

Many are internally displaced. There are no figures on people who are internally displaced for environmental reasons, but I believe that about 50 percent of environmental refugees do not have the resources to flee their countries.

IPS: Do environmental refugees have legal status?

MG: They are not recognised as refugees under international law, as the Geneva Convention adopted by the United Nations in 1951 only covers political or racial refugees. They have no rights. We think it is time to put the status of environmental refugees on the international agenda.

We hope to contribute to the international debate with our report, that will be presented in mid-June in Rome at the joint civil society-government meetings of the G8, that will bring NGOs together with the ministries of international cooperation of the eight richest countries.

IPS: What is the way out?

MG: There is only one possibility to get out of this environmental and humanitarian crisis: we have to invest both in the environment and in human rights.

We must invest in overcoming our dependence on oil and carbon in favour of renewable sources, and in sustainable agriculture and waste recycling. We have to allocate funds for the mitigation of the damages of climate change, and abandon European agriculture protectionist policies which support our crops but prevent products of poor economies from being competitive.

But the environmental crisis needs also a social answer. We are not just talking about land, but about people. Migration is considered by politicians a matter of public order. We must understand that behind this phenomenon there is a demand of survival: these people have no future and no chance to survive in their homeland.

IPS: Can individual countries act alone?

MG: No. We need global solutions. We have to give strength to the United Nations, to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), and the Kyoto Protocol. But the key to make these organisations effective is multilateralism, deciding together.

We have much hope in the new multilateral season inaugurated by United States President Barack Obama. It is the right time to end the bilateral approach to poverty, where the rich countries decide what is good for the poor ones.

© Inter Press Service (2009) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service