On 13 November the United Nations Conference on climate change in Glasgow, commonly known as COP26, concluded 24 hours later than was originally intended, with an agreement signed by the 197 countries present. Marta Foresti, director for Europe at ODI, closely followed the work of the conference. We asked her some questions about migration and climate change, here’s what she answered.
1. What do you make of COP26 and how has the issue of migration, linked to climate change, been addressed?
I am not an expert and therefore I merely observe. I have read various judgments ranging from those who speak of total success to those who say that it was a total failure, and it seems quite clear to me that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. There are some things that went better than others. Among those that went less well, I would highlight the difficulty in overcoming the dichotomies between rich and poor countries. There is a push from countries that have benefited from fossil fuels and have created thriving economies on it, which are now asking countries that have less developed or emerging economies to take on responsibilities that I would call unrealistic.
This is an issue on which there is a collective problem, and there is a collective responsibility, that has not been addressed – the amount of climate finance necessary to be able to provide support in a way that is fair (and not only ecological) to those countries that are most affected by climate change.
As regards the issue of migration, it must be said that among the thousands of things discussed at COP, migration was not been a central issue, as can be expected. However, as often happens, it has been discussed with mostly political purposes.
We observed what we have unfortunately observed on migration policies for many years, and certainly since 2015 – the scandalization and manipulation of facts. Using the threat of migratory flows to create fear, to create a sense of emergency on the part of countries. Even if sometimes the intentions and purposes are good, the damage is done, and often, in fact, it’s irreparable damage.
Above all, we ignore and underestimate what we know about climate migration and what it would be useful to do: first, that migration linked to climate change is a current reality and is not just an apocalyptic scenario to prepare for in the future. Therefore the priority must be concrete action today – not tomorrow. The second thing is labelling it as a catastrophe, a crisis, a threat. A crisis that then becomes perhaps for some humanitarian crises on which to take action to help, but on the other hand, it creates and feeds the fire of alarmism, nationalism and discrimination.
On the sidelines of the Conference, these issues were discussed and I hope these discussions will provide some clarity in the preparation for COP27 in Cairo.
First of all, it must be remembered that people are already moving or cannot do so due to climate change. Already now many people move, sometimes voluntarily and sometimes forced, due to climatic phenomena which, for example, can be seasonal and create problems for agriculture. At the margins of the COP, it was noted that migration is a phenomenon that is part of human development, and therefore goes hand-in-hand with climate change. As often happens, migration is mostly temporary and a local phenomenon, whereby most of the people who move due to climate change do so within national boundaries and perhaps do so by leaving agricultural areas and moving to the city, likely due to bad harvests. Hence the idea of caring much more about how to support current migrations that are linked to climatic phenomena was key. Finally, an attempt was made to consider migration and displacement in combination with other phenomena such as poverty or, in any case, imperatives of an economic nature. There has been some clarity on this, but as always, we reached that clarity a bit late.
Second: climatic shocks events may increase but also reduce (yes) migration and this can be good or bad for those affected. Like most other forms of migration, climate driven movements are local and short term.
The key is to focus on the most vulnerable, whether they move or not pic.twitter.com/v5a3NyO2vs
— Marta Foresti (@martaforesti) October 29, 2021
3. Could these become more central issues in the upcoming climate meetings?
Yes! For those involved in migration and climate, it is clear that this is the first time that there has been at least one debate on the issue.
This will be more evident during COP27, which will be in Egypt. There, the logic and interests linked to the economies of emerging countries will be more evident, where migration to other parts of the world, but also internal migration, is a fundamental factor of the economy and adaptation to climate change. This is a fundamental starting point for action: supporting migrants. But equally important, those who are forced to stay in places affected by climate change.
Maladaptation will also have to be discussed, i.e. cases in which the programs that are developed to respond to climate change have adverse effects in terms of migration instead.
I hope that COP27 will cover these issues better and in my opinion, we should also organise ourselves a little so that we too can be more reactive. So far we have thought a lot about adaptation, and little about mitigation, which in my opinion is just as interesting.
The low carbon transition from the point of view of economic-industrial transitions requires a rethinking of the workforce and new roles. People will have to move because there is no longer a need for a labour force engaged in coal mining, and they will have to find other occupations. Or the fact that in the technology field the skills required for new sectors may not exist locally, for example, how important the support of workers from India has been for the development of the technology sector in the US. There should be more of a push to think more proactively about migration as a strategy for an ecological transition and for the future contributions of workers, and thus not repeating the mistake we have made for so many years: ignoring the reality of migration as a tool – a strategy for sustainable economic development.
That is, thinking that moving from one place to another is a factor that can support ecological transition and investing in this.
4. When we talk about migration there is always this tendency to flatten the phenomenon and to want to describe it as something homogeneous. Are we making the same mistake with climate-related migration?
In part, yes. First of all, we tend to describe it as a “crisis”, and when we do, we focus, as I have already said in part, on who will be forced to leave because they are affected by climatic phenomena and not on who will do it for other reasons, perhaps even linked to the transition itself.
The idea of discussing it as a “crisis”, with all the corollary linked to the “invasion” that follows, should make us reflect, noting the role that this narrative has had on choices, such as Brexit. We then focus on the numbers, on future scenarios and the cause and effect relationship between climate change and migration, but in my opinion, this is not the point.
5. There are many estimates. Do you think the numbers circulating are reliable?
These are estimates that depend on a series of variable factors. In reality, there are also phenomena that are difficult to predict, such as COVID, which has drastically reduced the possibility of moving. The most important thing, in my opinion, we have already seen in the Mediterranean in 2015, is that in any case, this game of estimating possible migratory flows shifts attention from what is the current migratory phenomenon. The most problematic thing about the climate debate is that all this focusing on future catastrophes, on what will happen if we do not intervene in the climate, is partly taking away attention to what is already happening. Droughts and floods have already had a very direct impact on people, so you should think about what you can do to support them.
This is not a trivial issue because putting all this attention on the estimates of future flows inevitably leads to what we have already seen in Europe at a political level, that is to say, wondering how to stop migrants, how to commit resources to limit or stop migratory flows. Instead, we should invest in creating opportunities that are also mutually beneficial, where people who have the skills, aspirations and competencies to move from one place to another can also be of help to the communities that receive them. Especially after the COVID pandemic, we should all be aware of, and grateful for, the role that migrants play in our societies.