A new report from the Othering & Belonging Institute at the University of California – Berkeley sheds light on an emerging problem. The new report, “Climate Refugees: The Climate Crisis and Rights Denied,” by Elsadig Elsheikh and Hossein Ayazi, makes a compelling case to the international community for the adoption of a legally-binding convention that protects climate refugees.
In a chapter that I wrote concerning resilience and refugees, I raised similar concerns as those which underlie this report. When referring to those born in another land, definitions and distinctions abound, be they legal definitions, social science terminology, or one’s self-description. At home and abroad, the political and legal framework continues to evolve. Attempts to reform U.S. immigration processes have occasioned increasingly sharp political conflict over the past 20 years. Some politicians capitalize on this polarization. Domestically, racial tension and anti-immigrant sentiment have both grown. Internationally, the member states of the UN finalized a Global Compact on Refugees in 2018, augmenting the 1951 Refugee Convention. None the less, legal vacuums exist. The international standards do not provide for “climate refugees.” While the July 2018 Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration recognized climate change as a growing factor, the December 2018 Global Compact on Refugees eschewed the subject, using the term “climate” only twice, and, in one instance, in the context of a “business climate.” The World Bank estimates there will be as many as 143 million climate refugees, with a minimum of 92 million, by 2050. It is a growing crisis for which the world remains woefully unprepared.
This new report from UC – Berkeley profiles 10 countries that are among those most vulnerable under the climate crisis. For instance, Bangladesh, projected to lose 17 percent of its total land to sea level rise by 2050, would see displaced an estimated 20 million people, and the Maldives could lose all 1,200 of its islands to sea level rise. The release date of the report coincided with the U.N.’s annual Human Rights Day observance on December 10th.
The report also details specific vulnerabilities suffered by these refugees in U.S. and international law. The report argues that a new understanding of “persecution,” a longstanding requirement for receiving refugee status, could be broadened to include “petro-persecution.” In that event, a new agreement for climate refugees is made necessary, and such a framework should be undertaken as a revision to the 1951 Refugee Convention, or the establishment of a wholly new international convention.
Over the last few years, casual readers of newspapers likely had vague awareness that China had imprisoned more than a million ethnic Uighur Muslims and other minorities in camps in the country’s far-west Xinjiang province. While the Chinese government claims that the prisoners are volunteers who receive job training, human rights organizations allege that the ethnic minorities endure mass incarceration in “re-education camps” designed to indoctrinate those ethnic minorities.
. . . the investigation Badger commissioned of Hetian Taida, in response to allegations of forced labor, was fatally compromised by the company’s rush to exonerate itself and its supplier; the company announced findings, supposedly based on worker interviews,before [emphasis added] interviewing any workers. [p. 2]
Corporations have a responsibility to respect human rights within company-owned operations and through business relationships. This obligation is delineated in the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains in the Garment and Footwear Sector. Every brand and retailer that sources from China is exposed to the risks for forced labor in their supply chains: the harvesting and ginning of cotton, the spinning of the yarn, and the business relationships with corporations collaborating with the Chinese government to build and staff these new factories. The issue is not “simply” a violation of a retailer’s code of conduct or a reputational risk; companies risk a violation of U.S. law concerning importation of garments made with forced labor.
As public scrutiny of these issues increases, it will become
increasingly clear that companies’ due diligence mechanisms (audits and codes
of conduct) are insufficient. We at SGI would argue that, even in the best of
circumstances, audits and codes of conduct, while necessary, are insufficient
to protect human rights. In the circumstance of the Xinjiang province, such
efforts are rendered ineffective.
We urge companies to take this risk seriously. It is not enough to lay low and wait; companies must engage proactively. We also urge the U.S. government to take meaningful action against the Chinese government in this matter. Even our faith communities have a responsibility to act. Events in support of “religious freedom” ring hollow if it does not also include action to respect the religious freedom of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang. Finally, as consumers, we are called to solidarity with those who endure forced labor. NPR’s Scott Simon put it well: “What does it have to do with us? Look down at our shoes, our phones and our toys.”
Frank Sherman, Executive Director of Seventh Generation Interfaith
We experienced a record number of extreme weather events in 2017. We also witnessed a different kind of inversion. As our government reversed environmental and social regulations, companies took voluntary actions to protect people and the planet. In a Harvard Business Review profile of the Top 10 Sustainable Business Stories of 2017, business leaders took steps to reduce climate change. As the new administration pulled out of the Paris Agreement and made an all-out assault on our air, water, climate, and land, multinational corporations joined state and local governments to declare We Are Still In. Large institutional investors such as Blackrock and Vanguard woke up to the risk of climate change in voting with faith-based shareholder proposals.
China accelerated their sustainability efforts, stepping into the leadership position given up by the U.S., by committing to cut coal by 30% and cancelling 103 coal plants; making big moves in electric vehicles; and becoming the world’s largest solar producer. As the U.S. administration moved to relax fuel efficiency standards, GM, Ford and Volvo announced major investments in electric vehicles (EV). France, India, Britain, Norway, and China commitment to ban diesel and gas vehicles over the next couple of decades helped push EV sales up 63% globally last year!
Business leaders like Apple’s Tim Cook stood up stating that sustainability that isn’t about philanthropy, but rather about the core business and its role in society. Companies supported state attorney generals’ suit of the administration’s immigration ban and discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Looking ahead at 2018, author Andrew Winston predicted that “Millennials and Gen Z will continue to push for purpose and meaning in work and life”. Companies will set more aggressive sustainability goals and embrace “clean labels” (…like Walmart, Target, and Panera did in 2017). The #metoo movement against sexual harassment will move beyond media and politics to the corporate suites.
Seventh Generation Interfaith and several of our members were among 200 institutional investors representing more than USD 15 trillion in assets who sent a letter urging the G7 heads of state to stand by their commitments to the Paris Agreement at their upcoming Summit in Taormina, Italy on May 26-27. These investors ask the world leaders to reiterate their support for and commitment to implement the Paris Agreement, including the delivery of their own Nationally Determined Contributions in full. A briefing paper for governments of the G7 and G20 nations was prepared by six investor organisations including the Asia Investor Group on Climate Change, CDP, Ceres, the Investor Group on Climate (IGCC, Australia/New Zealand), the Institutional Investor Group on Climate Change (IIGCC, Europe), and The Principles for Responsible Investment.
“With the US threatening to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement next week, now is the time for investors to make their voices heard by encouraging governments to stand firm on their commitment to the Paris Agreement,” said Fiona Reynolds, managing director of the PRI. “Investors worldwide have come to understand the material financial risks around climate change. Certainly, at the PRI, our members have noted climate risks as their number one ESG concern.”