Top UN climate change official sceptical about relocation as a response to climate change

By Cherelle Jackson

POZNAN – The Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), Mr. Yvo de Boer, has made it clear that islands should be very weary of contemplating relocation as a response to climate change.

Speaking at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Poznan, Poland this week, De Boer said that even the thought of relocation is “depressing.” The Executive Secretary does not believe in the move as a positive response towards climate change. As islands such as Kiribati, Tuvalu and Tokelau in the Pacific face inundation due to sea level rise, de Boer was asked if the UNFCCC was ignoring the plight of such islands.

“It is not ignoring it; it is trying to prevent it. It is happening. That is why this information from islands considering relocation depresses me so much, because what they are doing is giving up.”

The Executive Secretary is convinced that islands facing such a dilemma should strengthen their adaptation measures and concentrate on supporting the processes in the Convention to ensure that the negative impacts of climate change are prevented.

“I think that there are still things that we can do including in countries such as Tuvalu and Kiribati to avoid people actually having to relocate,” de Boer said.

But the stance of the UNFCCC Executive Secretary was called into question by the Coordinator of International Climate and Energy Programme for Friends of the Earth (FOE), Ms. Stephanie Long.

“I think that people that have that point of view do not understand the practical realities of living in a small island in a vast amount of water surrounding you with very, very little elevation. I think that people who make those statements do so from a position of wanting to be helpful and wanting to ensure that people’s human rights are upheld, but I really believe that for countries that are facing the prospect of relocation, being proactive about it and planning for culturally sensitive relocation is being realistic.”

Dr. Lisa Schipper, Research Fellow for Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), says the statement by de Boer isolates vulnerable populations from the realities of their situations. “I do not know if I would say that it is ‘giving up,’ – it is situation specific. If you are talking about a small island context there aren’t that many options.  The concept of relocation is really interesting, in some ways it reflects the acknowledgement that there is a limit to how we can adapt. For the Pacific islands, that is a serious issue but for other countries there might be more flexibility because they do not have to worry about their territories disappearing.”

But the UNFCCC Executive Secretary says that the fact that relocation is being seriously considered by island nations means that Convention processes are not responding fast enough.  “I think that that is a depressing indication that this process is not moving fast enough and I think that it is really important that representatives of Pacific Island states are here to explain that they are confronted with the challenge of climate change today and not tomorrow or the day after. That is a valuable contribution – we are not moving fast enough in responding to that.”

Dr Schipper of SEI believes that an acknowledgement of the limits of adaptation opens up consideration of relocation.

“We can think about how to increase our resilience but we also have to consider relocation and migration. Realistically it is going to have to be about major infrastructure changes and how can you make sure you can even manage to engineer those kinds of structures that can withstand sea level rise.”

Long of FOE agrees, “We need to make sure that when and if the crisis happens and the islands are lost, we cannot wait for that point in time for countries to prepare to accept migrants from the Pacific. We need to make sure that when that time comes these countries can relocate their people in a way that is culturally appropriate, politically and socially acceptable and that they have the resources to do that, which is not the case right now.”

The proposed UNFCCC Adaptation Fund, which may be launched in the last week of the Poznan Conference, will likely not fund relocation efforts of vulnerable islands.

“I do hope that if the Adaptation Fund is launched at this meeting, that this can be an important and specific step in terms of helping small island developing states to adapt to the inevitable impacts of climate change,” de Boer stated.

Asked about allocation, he said: “What exactly the adaptation fund money is going to spent on still has to be decided, but I would not expect that will be for relocation. I think that other resources will have to be found for that.”

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