Day 3: The new trilemma: climate change, migration, & human health

Written by Laurene Barmaz

Climate change is a concept that has been gaining attention over the last decade. Since the first report of IPCC (Environmental Panel on Climate Change) in 1990, scientific uncertainty has been progressively reduced.  The fact that our environment is significantly changing due to human activities is nowadays therefore commonly accepted. Nevertheless, climate change has lead our societies to face new issues which force us to adopt new strategies.

As part of the Geneva Summer School on Global Environment, Energy and Risk, we’ve dedicated an entire day dealing with two different new paradigm brought by the unprecedented evolution of the global environment. These two topic, which are human health and climate change on the one hand, and environmental migration on the other hand, will be presented in this article in a comparative approach. While they both concern two very different aspects, they are similar in that both have been a consequence of climate change. Moreover, these two topics are part of the post-2015 development agenda and are found in various of the 17 sustainable development goals. Overall, in this article we will see that through the lens of climate change, one can relate various topic that originally have nothing, of very few, in common.

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First of all, the field of human health is one of the aspects which most profoundly affects each of us. As a consequence, governments have to face increasing pressure from the population who becomes aware of the impact of climate change on their health. Chai Jing, a former China Central Television journalist living in Beijing, blaming air pollution as the cause for her unborn daughter’s tumor, made a documentary in 2015 named « Under the Dome ». As it openly demonstrates the failure of China’s regulations on pollution, the government rapidly ban the diffusion of the documentary. Nevertheless, it went viral all over the world, which shows that human health strongly concerns citizens.

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Source: Youtube

As regards to the SDGs, the third goal dedicated to good health and well-being contains three targets directly related to the effects of climate change :

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Source: sustainabledevelopment.un.org

3.3 By 2030, end the epidemics of AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and neglected tropical diseases and combat hepatitis, water-borne diseases and other communicable diseases

3.9 By 2030, substantially reduce the number of deaths and illnesses from hazardous chemicals and air, water and soil pollution and contamination

3.d Strengthen the capacity of all countries, in particular developing countries, for early warning, risk reduction and management of national and global health risks

In order to achieve these goals, governments need to deal with climate change, either by mitigating the negative effects – such as air and water pollution – or by implementing adaptation measures. For instance, as malaria is becoming a major problem of environmental changes, the population’s vulnerability can be reduced by using more effectively mosquito nets.

Moreover, target 3 of the sixth goal, which relates to clean water and sanitation, also have a direct effect on human health :

“By 2030, improve water quality by reducing pollution, eliminating dumping and minimizing release of hazardous chemicals and materials, halving the proportion of untreated wastewater and substantially increasing recycling and safe reuse globally.”

Therefore it is clear that policy-makers have to integrate the health issues directly in the climate-change negotiations.

Secondly, our Summer School class went to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to hear Dina Ionesco, head of the Migration, Environment and Climate Change Division, talk about environmental migration, a field which has arisen recently.         Indeed, the link between migration and climate change, like with human health, needed to be put on the global agenda of the negotiations on climate change and is now given increasing attention. Until recently, climate change has been considered as an exacerbating factor of migration in state of a direct link.

Unlike human health, which benefits a huge awareness since it affects every human being, migration as a field where citizens need to be sensibilized. This point is a very important task of the MECCD. Hence their mission is to influence the agenda of climate change, and by doing so strengthen the global recognition of this arising problem. It is clear that in democratic countries, the citizen’s opinions will influence directly the composition of the elected parliaments and at the same time the ratifications of environmental treaties, which include environmental migration. This is one of the reason why an Environmental Migration Portal has been created, which given its interactive and people-oriented character aims to better inform the citizens worldwide. Furthermore, Dina Ionesco was very proud to show us the results of her team’s efforts in the long path to recognition of migrants by the climate community.

Acknowledging that climate change is a common concern of humankind, parties should, when taking action to address climate change, respect, promote and consider their respective obligations on human rights, the right to health, the rights of indigenous peoples, local communities, migrants, children, persons with disabilities and people in vulnerable situations and the right to development, as well as gender equality, empowerment of women and intergenerational equity”. (Preamble of the COP21 Paris Agreement)

It seems interesting to note that this paragraph shows the variety of topics which can be added in the basket of climat change and sustainable development. Therefore, we see once more that human health and migration can be included in the same context. In addition, as we already mentioned human health is far more accepted and less debated than migration. This paragraph indeed considers health as a right. By contrast, no right is mentioned regarding migrants (e.g. “right to migrations” / “right to human mobility”). For more information on this subject, Dina Ionesco has written a very short but complete article showing the importance if the COP21 for IOM available here

Regarding the SDGs, once again environmental migration is only indirectly mentioned. OIM has grouped the goals and target involving migration in the following illustration :

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Source: https://unobserver.iom.int/2030-agenda-sustainable-development

However, when it comes to specifically environmental migration, it can only be extensively interpreted under goal 1, 11 and 13. To sum up, lots of efforts still need to be done in the field of environmental migration, since migration remains a very sensitive topic among policy-makers and there is yet still no definition unanimously recognized.

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