UN drops plan to create group to relocate populations escaping effects of climate change
Flooding image (Shutterstock)

Australia opposed the idea, despite the US, Britain and France support for it, and it has been left off draft agreement for UN climate talks in Paris

Australia’s opposition to the creation of a body to help people escaping the ravages of climate change appears to have paid off, with the idea dropped from the draft agreement for the crucial UN climate talks in Paris.

A previous draft of the deal to be thrashed out by nations included a “climate change displacement coordination facility” that would provide “organised migration and planned relocation”, as well as compensation, to people fleeing rising sea levels, extreme weather and ruined agriculture.

However, this reference has been removed in a revised text ahead of the December climate conference negotiations. Australia opposed the facility, although Guardian Australia understands the prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, has shown interest in the issue of displacement.

“Australia does not see the creation of the climate change displacement coordination facility as the most effective or efficient way to progress meaningful international action to address the impacts of climate change,” a Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade spokesman said. “Australia is already working closely with our Pacific partners on these important issues.”

Australia had spent more than $50m in climate resilience projects in the Pacific and contributed another $200m to the Green Climate Fund.

Opposition to the coordination facility is not shared by Australia’s traditional allies, with representatives from the US, British and French governments indicating they were open to the idea.

“Climate change is one of the most serious threats we face, not just to the environment, but to our economic prosperity, poverty eradication and global security, hitting developing countries the hardest,” said a spokeswoman for Britain’s Department of Energy and Climate Change.

The impact of climate change is anticipated to displace up to 250 million people worldwide by 2050, including many in low-lying Pacific islands such as Tuvalu, Solomon Islands and Kiribati.

In areas of the Pacific, sea level is rising by 1.2cm a year, four times faster than the global average. For coral-based islands two to three metres above sea level this scenario has resulted in communities being relocated, and drinking water and crops are threatened by salt water inundation.

Recent research suggests islands will not be submerged but will change shape and height, posing difficulties for fixed infrastructure.

“Why on earth would Australia not support a coordination facility?” said Phil Glendenning, president of the Refugee Council. “We are talking about the most vulnerable people on the planet who are facing threats to their food security, seeing their water supplies diminish and their entire cultures at risk.

“The world is going to have to deal with this displacement. We need to get on the front foot. Australia can’t say we are doing enough. People in Kiribati and Tuvalu are the canaries in the coalmine and they are looking to Australia.”

Last year the Kiribati government bought 20 sq km of land on Vanua Levu, one of the Fiji islands, in case its people cannot be moved internally. It has a policy called “migration with dignity” if its cluster of 33 coral atolls become inhabitable.

Maria Tiimon, who moved to Australia from Kiribati in 2006, said people in her homeland are scared but did not want to become climate migrants.

“I speak to the young people there and they say they don’t want to move. This is where our ancestors came from,” said Tiimon, who is a Pacific outreach officer at the Edmund Rice Centre in Sydney. “Displacement really has to be the last resort. Pacific islands need help to adapt and the rich countries need to cut their greenhouse gas emissions.

“People in Kiribati are now very worried about climate change. They say, ‘No wonder it’s getting hotter, that it’s hard to find fish.’ The young ones are worried about the future. One said he wanted to be a doctor but that he’ll be unable to do so because of climate change.

“That’s not right. This has become a human rights and justice issue. These people haven’t contributed to climate change but they feel they have no future because of it.”

Tiimon said homes on the island where her family lives have been shifted inland, although there is little space for people to move to.

“People rely on well water dug from the ground because Kiribati is so flat. The water is becoming brackish because of the salt water,” she said.

“I tell Australians where I’m from and people don’t know where Kiribati is. But in Kiribati all the children know a bit about Australia. We look at the country as a big brother because we are almost in your back yard.

“I hope and pray Australia will do more. Australia is a wealthy country. It should take the lead on climate change and help the Pacific islands.”

Relocation of people is occurring across the Pacific region. Dozens of villages in Fiji will be moved, and 2,000 people from the Carteret atoll of Papua New Guinea will be transferred to mainland Bougainville, a three-hour trip on a wooden boat, because of salt intrusion and destructive tides.

Last year engineers from Australia and Britain helped plan the relocation of Taro, a town in the Solomon Islands, to the adjacent mainland. The move will mark the first time a regional capital in the Pacific has been displaced for environmental reasons.

Pacific island leaders have appealed to the international community in increasingly stark terms, with a succession of governments calling for action at a UN gathering in New York last week.

“I speak as an islander who has walked the shores of many atoll islands, where there was once sandy beaches and coconut trees,” Peter Christian, president of Micronesia, told the UN assembly. “Now there are none. I am told this will continue.

“We must become more cohesive in our actions to bring a useful conclusion to help mitigate the threat of sinking islands and prevent the potential genocide of Oceanic peoples and cultures.”

Advocates for displaced people argue that a new international framework needs to be created to help them, given that the UN refugee convention does not cover them because they are not fleeing persecution.

“I’d hope the UN would put a new apparatus in place. At the moment this is being dabbled in – there’s nothing systemic,” said academic Scott Leckie, founder of Displacement Solutions, an NGO that facilitates moving people displaced by climate change within their countries.

Leckie’s organisation focuses its work in five countries – Bangladesh, Columbia, Fiji, Panama and the Solomon Islands – but said climate displacement was a global problem, even in wealthy nations such as the US where people in Alaska have had to move and Boston faces a future of being a “city of canals” because of sea level rises.

“Successful relocation is very complicated and there’s a real gap in how governments do this internally,” he said. “It may seem simple to move 30,000 people within Panama, for example, but when you get into it there is a variety of land and ethnic tensions.

“The question for people on small islands is whether to stay or go, which is almost impossible to answer because the stakes are so high. Once you have people leave, you get a brain drain, investment dries up and you get into a vicious cycle of despair and poverty.

“This is solvable with political will and resources. There needs to be a coordinated human rights approach. Just as Australia takes in 12,000 Syrian refugees, there’s nothing stopping a further 1,000 places earmarked for people who have nowhere else to go in the Pacific islands.

“I think every country in the world responsible for CO2 emissions have some measure of responsibility for the predicament they’ve caused. Top of that list is Australia, given it is the worst per capita emitter in the world.”