Season of Creation 2021: Migration and the Hidden Losses of Climate Change
During this Season of Creation, as we reflect on the theme “A Home for All? Renewing the Oikos of God,” we remember that for an increasing number of people, the failure to safeguard and care for all of creation leads to a loss of home.
When we listen to the experiences of people who have migrated or been displaced due to the effects of extreme weather events or environmental degradation, it is clear that the impacts of climate change are not simply economic. While the loss of land and loss of resources are important, there are also impacts that are more difficult to quantify. These impacts often go unnoticed by the outside world, such as the loss of traditional ways of living, cultural heritage, and biodiversity. These include the ability to live on ancestral land; guardianship of sacred sites; coexistence with traditional animals, plants, and herbs; the practice of traditional medicine, folklore, song and dance, and religious rites; and cultural knowledge, including indigenous knowledge and practice.
Accounting for these non-economic losses changes the perspective: not only is arable land lost, but also landscapes. Not only are fisheries lost, but also traditions. When people relocate to new places, new ways of income generation are learned, but old ways of knowing and relating to the environment are lost. These losses are felt at both the individual and communal levels. Loss of cultural heritage, traditional knowledge, or place identity may leave communities disconnected from their sense of self and each other. The task of adapting to new realities may cause social and psychological distress, a sense of loss, and disorientation. When a community of fishermen and farmers is dislocated from the sea and their lands, what happens to their identity? Their self-determination?
There is a need to minimize losses as far as possible and fully engage with impacted communities to understand what they value. There is also a need for further research and engagement by both the international climate community and the human rights community into the area of non-economic loss and in particular its relationship to human rights.
There is no overarching legal framework at the international level that covers climate displacement. Principles and declarations like the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, the Nansen Initiative and the Platform for Disaster Displacement, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, and the Global Compacts for Migration and Refugees contain relevant principles, but only provide partial coverage and are not legally binding.
As we approach this year’s UN Climate Summit (COP26), where governments report on their responsibilities under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Paris Agreement, it will be important to pay attention to the work of the Warsaw International Mechanism on Loss and Damage and to ensure that this framework will adequately address issues related to migration and displacement, and in particular loss of cultural heritage, traditional knowledge, and social networks. While it may be difficult to measure these losses due to the absence of a market price, they are still valuable to individuals, families, and communities, and it is clear that their effect on human welfare is no less important.