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Climate Migrants: Millions More Could Be Displaced by Global Warming as Carbon Emissions Rise

Web ExclusiveDecember 12, 2018
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We continue our conversation with Harjeet Singh, who has been observing how the U.S. and other big polluters are hindering climate talks in Katowice, Poland. This comes as countries from the Global South warn that without drastic action to confront climate change they face annihilation, and millions may be forced to leave behind destroyed homes they cannot afford to rebuild. Singh is the global lead on climate change for ActionAid. He’s been working with climate migrants in several countries, and he is based in New Delhi, India.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We’re broadcasting from Katowice, Poland, from the U.N. climate talks, from a convention center that’s built to look like a coal mine. In fact, it’s on the property of an old coal mine. We’re about an hour from Krakow and about the same distance from Auschwitz, the World War II Nazi concentration camp where close to a million Jews died.

I’m Amy Goodman. We continue our look today at how the United States and the world’s other worst emitters are hindering negotiations here at the U.N. climate summit in Poland, even as countries from the Global South warn they can face annihilation without drastic action to confront climate change.

Still with us, for Part 2 of our discussion, is Harjeet Singh, the global lead on climate change for ActionAid. He has been working with climate migrants in a number of countries, based himself in New Delhi, India.

It’s great to continue to speak to you, Harjeet. Why don’t you talk about—we ended Part 1 talking about the scope of the problem. And if you could lay out the effects of climate change? And then I want to focus on climate migrants.

HARJEET SINGH: So, in developing countries, we are seeing how livelihoods are being impacted. People are losing their homes, and they have no option left but to leave their homes and families behind. When we talk about displacement, or climate migration, it clearly means that the local coping mechanisms have failed. Climate displacement is the epitome of climate impacts. Nobody would like to leave their homes and families behind. And we are seeing impacts rising, be it sea level rise, increasing number of hurricanes. Their intensity is increasing. We are facing unprecedented droughts. And people do not have really the capacity to cope. By the time they try to recover from the previous shock, another one hits them and hits them harder. And poor countries do not have resources to provide them relief, to help them reconstruct their homes and rebuild their lives.

And when it comes to UNFCCC negotiations, the discussion on finance is so difficult. It’s not moving forward. And at this moment, when the rulebook is being developed, the discussion is around predictability of finance and accounting. In 2016, developed countries came up with a report saying we are on track to provide $100 billion, but the report was full of cooked-up numbers and dodgy methodology to count the money. And—

AMY GOODMAN: How do you answer people in the United States, certainly the Trump administration, who might say, “Why help other countries? We have to”—well, he’s talking about America first.

HARJEET SINGH: Let us understand who has caused this problem. It’s 150-plus years of industrialization, and the U.S. and other bigger countries in the West have actually enjoyed the fruits of that industrialization, which has caused pollution. And this pollution is responsible for global warming and climate change. And developing countries, who are not responsible for the crisis, are facing these disasters.

So it’s an ecological debt that the U.S. and other countries have to pay. And to understand the emissions that have been put, U.S. is responsible for one-quarter of emissions historically. And same with Europe Union. So they have to put money on the table. This is the least that they can do to help people who are suffering from impact for no cause of theirs.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s go to this issue of climate migrants. ActionAid spoke to climate migrants—your organization—in Bangladesh. Let’s go to some of those voices.

CLIMATE MIGRANT 1: [translated] I couldn’t eat a single grain of rice because I was in such a traumatic state. My most painful memory was when I gave my house to the person I borrowed money from. If I can work hard enough to save money for a house, even if it takes 10 years, then I will do it. Who would ever willingly want to leave their hometown to move to Dhaka?

CLIMATE MIGRANT 2: [translated] When the flooding happens, we leave our homes and go to the cyclone center. But it’s not possible to take it all.

CLIMATE MIGRANT 3: [translated] Water levels are rising day by day. They [Piara’s family] went to Dhaka because they weren’t even earning enough to feed themselves. I don’t want to be compelled to go to Dhaka. We would like support so that ultimately we can support ourselves independently in our hometown.

CLIMATE MIGRANT 4: [translated] My land and housing have been destroyed. Every year there’s a flooding. How many disasters can one tolerate year after year?

AMY GOODMAN: So, there you have some climate migrants from Bangladesh, speaking with ActionAid. Our guest, Harjeet Singh, global lead on climate change in ActionAid. You know, the U.S. Pentagon, even if President Trump denies climate change, calling it a Chinese hoax, the Pentagon full well understands the pressure of climate change and has talked about it being the driver of war in the 21st century. Explain how that can be, from Bangladesh to other countries around the world. Even the migrant caravans in Latin America making their way north, the discussions of drought in what people are fleeing. Even drought is a pressure in Syria.

HARJEET SINGH: Absolutely. So, what we saw as Syrian crisis was a preview of what’s going to happen in the next few decades. When people have no option—they have no food, their houses get washed away, and they have nowhere to go—what else to do? They leave their homes. They first go to bigger cities. Then they go to capitals. And when they have no opportunity there, they also cross borders.

So, even if that is a fraction of a number, that number is going to rise. And we have no protection mechanism for them. So it’s very clear that the scale of migration that we are going to see caused by climate change is going to increase several folds. And this is only when we are living in a 1-degree-warmer world. It’s very important to recognize that. The impacts at 1.5 degrees, 2 degrees are going to be several folds. And at this moment, the current level of emissions, we are moving towards a 3-degree-warmer world. It’s going to be devastating for them. And when they have no option, they will put their lives in danger and cross borders.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what this U.N. science report means, even with the U.S. joining with Saudi Arabia, Russia and Kuwait in saying they won’t “welcome” the report, they’ll simply “note” it, this Nobel Peace Prize-winning scientific body of the United Nations saying that we’ve got 12 years, when it comes to climate change, before catastrophe occurs. What does that mean?

HARJEET SINGH: It means that we now have to bring the discussion of limited carbon budget right at the center. At the UNFCCC climate talks, they have long avoided what does that cake looks like, cake of carbon budget, how much we can more emit so that we don’t go beyond 1.5-degree temperature threshold, and how to cut the cake, which is technically known as equity. Now, they call these equity discussions very toxic, because that’s where responsibilities are fixed. We know that this cake of responsibility largely belongs to developed countries. They now have to cut the cake, which means they have to put their plans on the table—how much emission reduction I’m going to do in my own respective country and how much money I’m willing to provide to developing countries so that they can also reduce emissions.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, this term “climate equity” is so important.

HARJEET SINGH: Absolutely. And we have avoided it at climate talks. But look at what climate science says. It has clearly put 12 years’ deadline in front of us. And we have to bring the emissions down by half by 2050. And that’s the kind—

AMY GOODMAN: And yet they’ve increased.

HARJEET SINGH: Exactly. And the emissions are going up. And this year, it’s all projected that the emissions are going to go up. It’s going to be the highest level of emissions ever we have seen. So, we are not going in the right direction. Here at Katowice, that’s why it’s so important to make sure that the rulebook is robust; it talks about ambition, but it also enables ambition by providing finance to developing countries.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about the U.S. spokesperson, who said at the only side panel the U.S. is hosting, where they pushed fossil fuels and coal, oh, and nuclear power—he said that they are trying to ensure a level playing field. Last year, the same thing said, as they talked about increasing the visibility of fossil fuels and coal, this year the State Department saying ensuring a level playing field that benefits and protects U.S. interests. Would you argue it’s actually in U.S. interest to deal with climate change?

HARJEET SINGH: A level playing field for whom? For fossil fuel companies that are responsible for causing the crisis? And U.S. and other developed countries, like Saudi Arabia, are protecting the interests of these fossil fuel companies? They have much more power than developing countries and people who are facing climate impact.

And it’s not even in the U.S. favor. We have seen fires in California. We have seen Hurricane Harvey. So, even U.S. citizens’ life is at stake. So we need to put pressure on the government so it’s not just about, you know, developing countries. As we say, climate change knows no borders. Everybody is going to get affected.

But what is important to recognize, that it’s developing countries, one, they are responsible for the problem; second, they don’t have resources to deal with it; and, third, there’s also an opportunity so that they adopt a much greener development pathway.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s talk about another phrase that’s U.N. lingo but is so much more than that when it comes to the devastation on the ground. And that’s the term “loss and damage.” I wanted to turn to the environment minister of the Maldives speaking Tuesday about financing for the developing countries most vulnerable to the adverse impacts of climate change.

HUSSAIN RASHEED HASSAN: We continue to be very concerned by what appears to be deliberate attempts to isolate loss and damage in the negotiations. Loss and damage is an undeniable part of our—of our reality today and must be reflected by incorporating it into the transparency framework, global stocktake and finance. … We need to identify how finance flows, both public and private, reflects the 1.5-degree goal and are reaching those who need support the most, especially small island developing states and the least developed countries.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the environment minister of the Maldives speaking Tuesday. Top representatives of countries from all over the world are in one plenary, each one addressing the world about climate change. Our guest is Harjeet Singh, because there are also thousands of activists from around the world. He is from India—New Delhi, to be exact—global lead on climate change at ActionAid. If you could elaborate on what the environment minister said from this Pacific island nation of the Maldives?

HARJEET SINGH: So, let me put things into context. When we talk about climate action, there are three pillars of climate action. One is mitigation, which is about emission reduction and protecting forests. Second is about adaptation, which means being much more prepared to deal with climate impacts so that we are not impacted, which means, you know, retrofitting your houses, building dikes, making sure that your agriculture is climate resilient.

The third aspect is what happens when you are already getting affected. That’s the loss and damage. That has become a third pillar of climate action. And we fought very hard in Paris to make sure that it is separated from adaptation and has its own article. So Article 8 of the Paris Agreement is about loss and damage.

Now, this is where it has become a lot more contentious at Katowice. We would like to have global stocktake, which is a ratchet-up mechanism, every five years, to have focus on all three aspects, in addition to financing. Developed countries, particularly U.S., Australia, Canada, Japan, are resisting to have this language included in the global stocktake. Now, it is fundamental for Pacific nations and all developing countries, because if you don’t have that element, then in every five years you will not be talking of people. We’ll only be talking of solar panels. We’ll be talking of wind farms. We’ll be talking of, you know: Are we doing something to prepare for climate impacts? But not about people who are already getting impacted.

We are living in a situation where many people are going to be relocated because the places are either going to be swallowed by sea or are going to be unarable. What would happen to such people? We need to have a mechanism in place so that we can deal with loss and damage.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you see a connection between the pressures of climate change and the massive exodus of climate refugees, and right-wing governments, authoritarian governments, erecting walls, for example, in Hungary, or the president of the United States on the southern border whilst threatening to shut down the U.S. government if he doesn’t get financing for his wall? Do you see a connection between authoritarian governments’ rise and the pressures of refugees trying to leave plagued areas?

HARJEET SINGH: Yes, there is connection. But what we need to understand, that things are going to get much worse if we don’t act now. Nobody would like to leave her or his home because they’re not getting greener pastures. They are going to live in a much—they’re putting their life in danger while in transit, and they’re living in a very insecure environment, you know, with a lot of uncertainty. So it’s not that everybody is willing to come to Europe or the United States. People would like to remain there. While we also recognize that mobility is a fundamental right recognized by the U.N. So we have to put systems in place that we are not forcing people and driving people away from their homes. That’s why discussions here are far more important, to make sure that there is money on the table and we are ready to help people who are being forced to migrate.

AMY GOODMAN: You say this is the most important summit since the Paris accord was signed?

HARJEET SINGH: Absolutely. So, in Paris, we had an agreement. And now it’s about operationalizing the agreement by having a robust rulebook in place. If that doesn’t happen, where are the rules to make sure the Paris Agreement is implemented in toto?

AMY GOODMAN: What does stringent reporting mean, Harjeet?

HARJEET SINGH: See, the kind of plans countries have put on the table are of a different nature. Some are talking about reducing carbon intensity. Some are talking about absolute reductions in different sectors, like transport, energy. Some are talking about a economy-wide emission reduction. So, there are going to be different metrics. So we need to have a system in place so that we are able to understand where we are heading in terms of emissions and emission reduction patterns.

For that, you need to have a reporting system. But let’s also understand that not all countries have same level of technical institutions to capture that information and do reporting periodically, which means that we have to have some flexibility and support built in, in making sure that the report is coming and it’s true and we are able to get a good sense of what’s going on.

Now, that comes under the whole transparency system, and the United States is pushing very hard on transparency when it comes to reporting. But there is another side to it. It’s about transparency of finance and support. The moment you talk about transparency of finance, things get stuck. There is no movement on how money is going to be provided to developing countries to transition to greener pathways and tackle climate impacts. Now, that’s where things are stuck as we speak.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, your assessment of where things are right now at this climate summit and what you want to see happen by the end of the week?

HARJEET SINGH: Very clearly, we have to see progress on finance. So, there are two aspects. One is predictability, which means developing countries should know how much money is coming and when and in what form and shape. And secondly, we should be able to account for that money. We have seen examples of loans and guarantees being included because of that dodgy methodology. If the money is real, the action is going to be real. So, once we are able to have money on the table, it will unlock ambition, and that will keep us below 1.5-degree temperature rise scenario. And we have very little time, just 12 years, to bend the curve. At the same time, we also need to help people who are already getting affected from climate change, both preparing them for impacts, and, people who are already affected, we need to help them rebuild their lives. So money is central, whatever we are doing here.

AMY GOODMAN: And last question: Where you come from, in New Delhi, India, from India, what are the effects of climate change? What does climate change look like?

HARJEET SINGH: We have seen unprecedented drought. We have seen floods in Kerala, the southern part of India. It happened after a hundred years. And people—and Kerala is one of the prosperous states, with good capacity to deal with disasters, and was—just didn’t know how to deal with it because of the scale of the problem, scale of the disaster. So, even a country like India, which has some resources, is unable to deal with the increasing number of hurricanes, floods, drought and also sea level rise. So imagine what would happen to a small developing country like Malawi or Nepal. And that’s the most concerning situation. On one hand, we are failing on reducing emissions, and, on the other hand, we are not ready to help people who are already getting affected. So we have to make progress on all these aspects to make sure that we implement the Paris Agreement in letter and spirit.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you for being with us, Harjeet Singh, global lead on climate change at ActionAid, working with climate migrants in a number of countries, based in New Delhi, India.

To see Part 1 of our discussion with him, go to, and also to see all of our coverage from Katowice, Poland, where we are right now, broadcasting for the week from the U.N. climate summit. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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