Day 3: Making the link: Health, Environment, & Migration

Written by Carina Vogelsberger

After Cécile Molinier, former Head of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), introduced us to the concept of human security on Tuesday, our thematic focus today made us look at two specific issues in that regard, both closely connected to energy and the environment.

The main theme of the morning session was how climate change is- and will be affecting human health. It made our group realise that, in fact, people in all parts of the world are experiencing the consequences of climate change already (although some to a greater and others to a lesser extent).

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However, particularly when reconnecting this impact on human health to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2030 and possible implementation strategies, we were wondering whether it might also entail a potential to address climate change: Health is of central concern to everyone, possibly uniting people in the common interest to sustain it. Considering that the impacts of climate change can be felt everywhere on the planet, human health could serve as a central argument for the need of effective climate policies and foster collaboration on the local and international level, as well as among different societal groups. The challenge thereby is to persuasively illustrate the relation between climate change and several communicable and non-communicable diseases. As we discussed the previous day, it is thereby not so much the label of ‘climate change,’ which might be crucial, but to recognise the connection of, for example, increasing pollution and a higher frequency of cardiovascular illnesses.

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By that, galvanising civil society into action entails a special potential, particularly (but not only) in democratic countries: As consumers, the people determine offer and demand within the private sector while, as citizens, they are the ones (re-)electing their representatives on the policy-making level, hence having in fact the greatest power to demand change. In order for civil society to become the central link between the different private and public actors, additional challenges need to be considered: As has been stated by the World Health Organisation (WHO), the impacts of climate change are especially severe for those parts of the population that are already the most vulnerable – those, who might however have the least say in the fight against it.  Therefore, what will be crucial to not only alleviate, but prevent health impacts in all regions and parts of the world is a change of public perception, making the link between climate change and human health more visible and evoking some kind of mutual empathy.

Although a form of global governance might still be the ideal, the lack thereof requires alternative, more flexible and creative strategies to overcome our inability to act at the international (and often even national) level.[i] Overall, we are in need of a multi-level approach, raising public awareness through the support of national, regional and local governments alike. Ideally, this should lead to a shift in perceptions and hence, also increase the prospects of private businesses when investing in projects related to the measurement and alleviation of climate change impacts. A detailed elaboration on how this could be achieved in practice exceeds the scope of this post, but particularly the reports to the fourth day of our summer school will indicate one possible angle.

Health impacts of climate change are also of central concern to the organisation we visited in the afternoon, the International Organization for Migration (IOM). If the consequences of changes in the environment reach a level that threatens people’s lives and existence, they might decide to (or: have to) move and settle somewhere else. The vague formulation of the previous sentence indicates already some central problems Dina Ionesco, Head of the IOM’s Migration, Environment and Climate Change Division indicated: Are we talking about forced or voluntary migration? Is this migration temporary or permanent? And do we merely mean migration within, or without one’s own national borders? As Dr. Ionesco illustrates, definitions vary and no international agreement on what constitutes an “environmental migrant” does yet exist. In its ninety-fourth Council Session in 2007, the IOM however agreed on the following working definition :

“Environmental migrants are persons or groups of persons who, predominantly for reasons of sudden or progressive changes in the environment that adversely affect their lives or living conditions, are obliged to leave their habitual homes, or choose to do so, either temporarily or permanently, and who move either within their country or abroad.”

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Even if this definition is not legally binding, Dr. Ionesco confirms that there is an increasing sensitivity for such forms of migration, not only on the side of national policy makers, but even by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the World Bank. Recent political achievements have been the anchoring of the rights of climate and environmental migrants in the Paris Climate Change Agreement, as well as integrating migration-related targets in the SDGs, including also goal #13.

Nevertheless, similar to the climate change – human health nexus, Dr. Ionesco is critical about the practical implementation of such, as she calls them, “bla-bla policy frameworks” and the ‘real’ difference they can make on the ground.

Despite an increasing demand for data, willingness to fund the necessary research for the same is largely absent. And even if the financial means are available, reliable and evidence-based information is difficult to gather – especially due to the fact that environmental conditions are rarely the sole reason for migration. Oftentimes they are the cause of other influence factors such as food insecurity or economic grievances, so that even the people affected might not perceive environmental change as their initial motivation. The IOM recognises that environmental migration is a multi-causal phenomenon and, as such, difficult to distinguish from other influence factors. The consequence is an unclear division of responsibilities among the different stakeholders. Coordinating, and ideally overcoming it, might be one of the IOM’s major future challenges.

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Likely, this would open up new opportunities for data gathering and management, probably enabling the direct engagement of people living in critical regions. Those might have the better capacity to monitor slow onset events and improve long term predictions of future migration flows. Taken together, these measures will contribute to the IOM’s aim of not only assisting migrants and communities when migration occurs, but also minimising forced migration caused by environmental and climate change. Nevertheless, a key objective of the organisation is to make clear that environmental migration is not simply a ‘problem’ we have to deal with, but can indeed be a sufficient adaption strategy, especially in its temporary form. Despite the challenges it brings with it, we should not underestimate its potential to contribute to the transfer of knowledge and to strengthen livelihoods in areas people emigrate or flee from; for example, through income diversification via remittances from abroad.

To sum up, day three has shown that anthropogenic changes in the environment have already begun to impact people’s lives and have become a reality we need to adapt to. However, despite the perceivable urgency to prevent further threats to human security effective measures on the ground are largely missing. Nevertheless, the increasing awareness of this policy-reality-gap, such as expressed by the IOM but also through the new SDGs, might be a first step in the right direction. To practically realise what has been agreed upon on the formal level requires the inclusion of all stakeholders and uniting public sector, private sector and civil society under a common goal.

[i] This is not to say that such efforts and agreements do not exist: UNFCCC, Article 1, paragraph (1) acknowledges the need to minimise the adverse effects of anthropogenic climate change on human health and World Health Assembly Resolution WHA/61. R19, as well as Executive Board Resolution EB124.R5 request the WHO to develop the capacity to assess the risks from climate change for human health and to implement effective response measures. However, effective measurements are largely missing and with it, also the necessary practical efforts to alleviate these risks.


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