Mass Climate Refugees on the Horizon: An Interview With Dr Ian M McGregor

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Dr Ian M McGregor

An open letter declaring that “planet Earth is facing a climate emergency” –  co-signed by 11,000 scientists – was published on Tuesday. It asserts that despite the science being in on climate for 40 years, greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise at an ever-increasingly damaging rate.

“The climate crisis is closely linked to excessive consumption of the wealthy lifestyle,” reads the letter that’s been signed by scientists in 153 countries. Contributing human activities associated with this lifestyle are meat production, global tree cover loss, fossil fuel consumption and air travel.

Yet, despite four decades of warning, the global community has generally “conducted business as usual” and has “largely failed to address this predicament”, the letter continues. So, these scientists have spoken out, as it’s their “moral obligation”.

One major aspect to the global climate crisis is that millions of people are going to find themselves dispossessed from their homes. Indeed, in some regions across the planet climate refugees are already on the rise, both internally and across borders.

Mass migration

A report released by the World Bank in March last year, warns that by 2050 there could be over 143 million people in three regions of the Global South – sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America – displaced internally within their own countries.

While a recently released UN Human Rights Council report states that even with best-case scenarios, “hundreds of millions will face food insecurity, forced migration, disease, and death”. And this risks the collapse of international human rights frameworks and recent progress in health and poverty.

In countries like Bangladesh, internally displaced persons are already on a dramatic rise. An estimated half a million people are fleeing to the capital of Dhaka every year due to rising sea levels and salinization of the land, which makes agriculture impossible.

And the Morrison government’s complete disregard to the challenges being faced in some of our neighbouring Pacific nations was on display in August, when the PM forced a watering down around language on climate change and coal reduction used in relation to the Pacific Island Forum.

A seasoned observer

Dr Ian M McGregor is a UTS academic, who’s been researching in the area of climate change for close to two decades. He attended the UN Climate Change Conferences, or COPs, from Copenhagen in 2009 through to Paris in 2015.

And the doctor acted as an advisor to the Least Developed Countries (LDC) Group for five of those years. The LDC is an association of close to 50 countries that are “especially vulnerable to climate change but have done the least to cause the problem”.

Sydney Criminal Lawyers spoke to Dr McGregor about the Liberal Nationals government’s lack of action on climate, what it should be doing about the global crisis, and the two issues involved in the Paris Agreement that make it unworkable.

Firstly, while some Australians continue to refer to the climate change debate, in nations, like Kiribati, Bangladesh and Greenland, the debate is over, as the crisis is obvious due to the changes already taking place.

Dr McGregor how drastic are the changes that are already occurring due to increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere?

Tom Zubrycki made a very good documentary called The Hungry Tide. It follows a Kiribati climate change activist. She went back to the country and showed the flooding is already occurring – the inundation of areas that used to grow food.

They’re trying adaptations, like raised beds for growing vegetables, so the water doesn’t inundate them. But, the water still gets underneath with the salt.

The highest point in Kiribati is three metres above sea level. They don’t have groundwater. And they don’t have a lot of rainfall, so you can’t get water from a rainwater tank.

In places like Kiribati, the climate crisis is really obvious. They don’t want to be climate change refugees. One of the reasons that the Pacific islands have been fighting so strongly is they want to maintain their cultures and to stay on their islands. They don’t want to reach Australia.

New Zealand is being more friendly with them. Some of the young people have gone to New Zealand for training, with a view to either having skills to go back to the islands, or possibly continue in New Zealand.

In Afghanistan, things are pretty bad, which I mention as it contrasts with Kiribati, as it doesn’t have any coastline.

How is a landlocked nation like Afghanistan suffering the effects of climate change?

The glaciers are the big problem. The glaciers have disappeared in some areas. And that has meant that agriculture is no longer viable.

It used to be when spring came that the glacier melted and flowed down the stream. And that provided water for agriculture. It’s a very dry country, generally.

But, drought, bushfires, rising sea levels can cause problems all over the world.

Indian environmental activist Vandana Shiva argues that the Syrian crisis was triggered by a climate change-related drought in the region. And therefore, significant numbers of refugees making their way into Europe are the result of the climate crisis.

In your understanding, where are we seeing displaced persons as a result of climate change already?

There’s a kind of leap in Vandana Shiva’s argument. Yes, the climate crisis contributed to the Syrian conflict. But, if the Syrian government hadn’t been clinging onto power or reluctant to address some of the grievances, it wouldn’t have turned into a horrible civil war.

It was one of the triggers, but Syria was a country with a lot of division.

It’s really hard to tell how many climate refugees there are. There was an island that was habitable in the Solomon Islands that had to be abandoned, because it’s no longer viable for people to live there.

And a few of the islands in Kiribati are getting to that stage. They’re talking about selecting a few islands where they can concentrate the people on. We’re talking about refugees within a country. They haven’t actually fled across the border.

The other problem is that the Refugee Convention refers to a well-founded fear of persecution. And the question is, does climate change represent persecution?

There are certainly refugees coming out of Afghanistan and sub-Saharan Africa trying to get to Europe. And those countries are suffering more from climate-related impact.

A 2 degrees average global warming is said to be about 3 degrees in sub-Saharan Africa, because the heat concentrates around that region.

In sub-Saharan Africa, we are now getting close to a 1 degree warming already. One of the contributing factors to the significant refugees coming out of those regions into Libya and on to Europe could be climate change.

Despite many politicians around the globe still playing the climate change denial card, governments must be aware that a large number of people are potentially going to be fleeing multiple crises.

In your understanding, are governments creating strategies or plans to prepare for this mass migration?

No. I’ve seen Pentagon reports on climate change saying these things will occur, but I haven’t seen any evidence that any country is preparing. But, to take a step back, Europe isn’t prepared for the flood of refugees it’s getting currently. And that’s an immediate crisis.

Federal politicians in Australia have got a three year time horizon, so the long-term prospect of climate refugees is not really on the agenda.

There was an Australian Senate inquiry that said the government should be taking these issues more seriously. The government just said, “We are addressing them. Don’t worry about it.”

They’re not doing much to address climate change, much less worry about climate refugees. We’ve said at the moment that we won’t accept any climate change refugees from the Pacific islands, while New Zealand said it will.

And on the Morrison government, what do you think about the way it’s dealing with changing climate?

It’s a disaster. I met Malcolm Turnbull at a reception for Bill McKinnon, the founder of It was still a Labor government, because Peter Garret was there as environment minister. Malcolm was there from the shadow cabinet, as he had an interest in this area.

Malcolm lost the Liberal leadership over backing the emissions trading scheme under Rudd back in 2009. And he lost the leadership largely again over emissions in the National Energy Guarantee system.

So, Scott Morrison is aware that the right-wing of his party make it dangerous to act on climate change, so he’s not prepared to do anything on it. Even though, 80 percent of Australians want more action.

Churchill said democracy is not a perfect system, but it’s the best system we’ve got. And I’m beginning to wonder whether parliamentary democracy – where we have a government and opposition – is the best way of looking at government.

If I’m running a legal company, I don’t have a board and an opposing board as a governing mechanism. I’d have a board that was there for the health of the company. And I’d like a government that was responsible for the health of the country, and also the planet.

The Liberal government is saying that Labor’s radical climate policy was rejected at the last election. But, it probably wasn’t. People probably wanted to vote for Labor for more climate policy, but they were scared off by negative gearing and pensioner tax.

There’s a rising awareness on climate change amongst the public. However, the science has been in for 40 years. Why’s it taken so long for climate change to have become a mainstream issue?

It waxes and wanes. There was certainly a strong push in Australia and globally before Copenhagen in 2009. There was a protest. We had hundreds of people at the Opera House.

There are two major issues with the Paris Agreement from an Australian perspective. Firstly, our commitments in Paris were very weak compared with our huge per capita emissions and our huge carbon footprint on a per capita basis.

We’re only less than 2 percent of global emissions, but per capita we are actually huge. They’ve fudged it by saying that with population increase we’ll see a reduction. But, we’re just a really bad country that’s heavily dependent on fossil fuels.

Secondly, Australia’s commitment was meagre, but so were the commitments of everybody else. So, if you look at commitments under the Paris Agreement, we’re heading for 3 to 4 degrees rise.

I was sitting on the floor in Paris with the head of the Honduras delegation and some other Least Developed Country delegates. And they were saying, “Should we accept this?”

The Paris Agreement said we will attempt to keep emissions well below 2 degrees and aim for staying below 1.5 degrees. But, there was nothing on the table that indicated that there was any commitment to actually achieving this.

All UNFCCC decisions have to be accepted by consensus. And admittedly it’s been consensus minus nine countries on occasions.

With the Paris Agreement, there was a couple of countries who weren’t comfortable with it, because they knew they were so isolated. But, the French government did a good job in corralling people to accept.

So, politicians said that we’d agreed on the 2 degree target, but they hadn’t agreed to the emission targets to get anywhere near the 2 degree target.

And lastly, Dr McGregor, you’ve been working in the climate change space for 17 years. What do you believe the government should be doing about the climate crisis right now?

Beyond Zero Emissions is an organisation I’ve been involved with. Ten years ago, it had a plan of how we could move the Australian electricity sector to zero emissions using solar, wind and thermal energy sources.

With energy technology now, we could easily decarbonise, both Australian and the global electricity generation systems. The harder thing is transport.

We should be using electricity in high potential sources to produce hydrogen and then we can fuel cars and trucks.

It’s a little less convenient, because you have to stop every 400 kilometres or so and recharge your battery. If you go to Europe you will find charging stations everywhere, but here you are hard pressed to find one.

What we should be doing is decarbonising our economy as fast and as quickly as possible. But, that’s certainly not on the government’s agenda at the moment.

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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