Mr. Jeem Lippwe,
Charge d'Affaires, a.i.
Federated States of Micronesia
on behalf of the
Pacific Small Island Developing States (PSIDS)
64th United Nations General Assembly
Agenda Item 41: Report of the UNHCR
New York, 3 November 2009
Check Against Delivery
I have the honour to speak on behalf of the Pacific Small Island Developing States (PSIDS) represented at the United Nations, namely Fiji, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Republic of the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, Tonga, Vanuatu, and my own country, the Federated States of Micronesia.
I wish to comment on the effect of climate change impacts on human mobility and displacement in the Pacific region. At the outset, I wish to acknowledge the High Commissioner for his work on this important issue.
Pacific Island countries are amongst the most vulnerable countries in the world to the impacts of climate change. The possibility that the impacts of climate change will lead to forced displacement across international borders in the Pacific is one of the gravest security threats we face. The prospect for the future is particularly alarming for some of the low-lying islands.
There are a range of studies estimating future displacement caused by climate change. The IPCC records that by 2050 as many as 150 million people may be displaced as a result of the impacts of climate change, predominantly the effects of coastal flooding, shoreline erosion and agricultural disruption. The Stern Review cited a higher estimate of 200 million people displaced by 2050. While recognising the limitations of the estimate, the Stern Report concluded that this estimate "remains in line with the evidence presented throughout this chapter that climate change will lead to hundreds of millions more people without sufficient water or food to survive or threatened by dangerous floods and increased disease."
There are a number of factors that contribute to climate induced displacement in the Pacific region including: (1) loss of freshwater security through reduced precipitation and saltwater intrusion into freshwater supplies; (2) loss of food security through increased inundation, erosion and saltwater intrusion affecting agriculture and ocean acidification and coral bleaching affecting marine food sources; (3) rising sea levels that exacerbate inundation, erosion and other coastal hazards and threaten vital infrastructure, settlements and facilities; and (4) sudden-onset climaterelated disaster or hazard events such as storms and flooding.
Internal relocations linked to climate change within the PSIDS have already occurred. For example, the settlement of Lateau, in the northern province of Torba in Vanuatu had to be relocated because of rising sea levels. Further relocations related to climate change have happened in the Federated States of Micronesia, Papua New Guinea, Tuvalu and the Solomon Islands. Internal relocation both within and between islands places an enormous strain on food, housing, education, health, and water, as recipient communities struggle to accommodate the number of people displaced.
In some PSIDS, internal relocation is not feasible because of geographical constraints. Displacement to a neighbouring or third country might be the only option if climate change continues at the current rate without significant and urgent mitigation by the international community.
For some countries in the Pacific, the climate crisis risks the total submergence of islands. The Pacific Islands contain a high number of low-lying atoll islands rising no more than two to three meters above sea level. Kirabati, the Republic of the Marshall Islands and Tuvalu consist exclusively of atolls. As sea level continues to rise, it will reach a point where it will eliminate whole islands, and in the most tragic of cases the very existence of sovereign nations is at risk.
In addition to loss of state territory through sea-level rise, the UNHCR has observed that a threat to statehood may in fact arise much earlier. Based on IPCC projections on rising sea-levels inundating coastal settlements and increased extreme weather events the UNHCR has noted that "low-lying island States are thus very likely to be entirely uninhabitable long before their full submersion." The international community must recognise this reality and appropriately respond now.
How to respond to what is an extraordinarily complex issue is of course the crucial question. Currently, there are no international legal protections specifically for climate-displaced persons across international borders. The 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees pertains only to persons persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. According to an analysis by the UNHCR, some people displaced in relation to the impacts of climate change may be covered by the Refugee Convention, where as others will not be protected. There is little appetite for expanding the Refugee Convention to explicitly cover those displaced by climate change given a fear this risks lowering the protection currently afforded all refugees.
The discussion on what needs to be done to fill this legal vacuum has already begun, but we should not rush to create any new agreements. We must first and foremost focus our efforts on preventing such forced migration and providing people of the Pacific the necessary resources to protect the integrity of their island homes, their unique cultural identity and their ability to provide for their own means of subsistence. Leaving ancestral homelands, and in the most tragic scenario, leaving the entire country behind is a devastating prospect for people in the Pacific.
For the sake of clarity, under no circumstances can efforts to protect climate-displaced people be used as an excuse for inaction on mitigation and adaptation. Climate displacement cannot been seen as a safety valve for a failure in political will, but rather, an option of last resort available only after all good faith efforts at mitigation and adaptation have failed. Our survival is not negotiable.
Further, any discussions on climate change induced displacement and consideration of options to protect the most vulnerable must be driven by the people affected.
Finally, it must always be remembered that climate change is not an "act of God" like an earthquake or tsunami. It is a crisis of human origin. Climate change induced displacement is predominantly caused by the greenhouse gas emissions of developed countries - and most of the victims of the displacement will be in those countries least responsible for the cause. This is the context that must shape the discussion on how to protect people forced to leave their homes through the impacts of climate change.
Responding to climate-induced displacement is not about seeking the charity of developed countries. Rather, we demand recompense for the damage that the economic activities of developed countries have caused to our homes. Developed countries have an obligation to act and they have no right to dictate the terms of our salvation.
Climate change induced displacement can be prevented, if the international community finds the political will to uphold the basic human rights of all people and not only conclude a fair, comprehensive and legally binding agreement in Copenhagen, but then faithfully comply with the terms of that agreement.
I thank you.