A Translator Needed

At COP24 in Katowice, Poland, over one hundred languages are spoken in the hallways and rooms of the International Conference Centre and Spodek Arena where the negotiations are held. In light of this fact, a host of translators are on hand to ensure that country representatives and observer delegates do not face any language barriers during the proceedings. Yet, despite the painstaking efforts of the UNFCCC’s Secretariat to facilitate communication between attendees and avoid potential miscommunication, one conspicuous “language” barrier remained unaddressed: that between policy-makers and community representatives. In this “language barrier”, conversations about the same issue often occurred parallel to each other, with little to no interaction or input from the other camp. Nowhere was this more apparent than in discussions on displacement and human rights. 

While attending the negotiations, I followed ongoing conversations around the growing issue of climate-related displacement. Scholars conservatively estimate that 21.5 million people are displaced annually by climate change and its related effects and, under even the most optimistic scenarios set forth by the recent IPCC report, hundreds of millions more are threatened. While no region is immune to the effects of climate change, the risk of displacement is greatest for countries with high exposure to climate hazards, have a large percentage of low lying land and coastlines, and have large populations in areas that lack the capacity or resources to adequately prepare. Thus, many developing nations, particularly Small Island Developing States (SIDS), are disproportionately vulnerable to climate related displacement. 

Rising sea levels threaten coastal communities 

As concern for this issue increased in recent decades, the Paris Agreement asked the Executive Committee of the Warsaw International Mechanism on Loss and Damage to issue a set of recommendations on how countries and the international community could best respond to climate displacement. These recommendations were released in the run up to COP24, with the hope that they would be adopted in the “Rule Book” that Parties have been tasked with developing. As such, climate displacement took center stage during Week 1 of the COP. 

It was during these negotiations and side events that the duality of the conversation around displacement became particularly apparent. During negotiation, Parties quibbled about whether displacement should be considered within adaptation plans or under loss and damage frameworks, whether displacement should instead be called “forced migration”, and what guidelines countries should use to place monetary values on the causes and results of displacement. It ultimately all came down to economics: how much would it actually cost countries to address displacement? 

Less than an hour after one of these negotiations concluded, I found myself in the same room discussing the same issue, but from a markedly different frame. This time, indigenous representatives from Tuvalu, Alaska, and Bangladesh, places severely at risk for climate displacement, shared their own narratives and conveyed the urgency they felt. To them, it didn’t matter whether action would be called “adaptation” or “loss and damage”; they just wanted action! As these representatives described it, time wasted trying to iron out semantics simply meant that more people’s homes were destroyed and more lives upended. As the representative from Alaska so succinctly put it, “every minute matters”. 

Climate activists feel a sense of urgency around the threat of displacement

These community representatives also chafed at the thought of boiling down that which would be lost from displacement to a single monetary value. How do you put a price tag on culture? On language? On identity? This was a question that was completely absent from any of the negotiations. Policy makers and Party delegates focused on things like valuing destroyed infrastructure or agriculture. Naturally, they avoided trying to put a price tag on something that is priceless. 

After the side event concluded, I asked a climate justice advocate present in the room whether they knew if these views were known and considered by the Party delegates. She shook her head and said she doubted it. “Well, I’m sure they’ve been told but I doubt they really listen, you know? These perspectives just complicate things for them and so maybe they think it’s easier to just think about economics? I’ve tried reaching out to people before the COP to talk but they never respond. Too busy, I guess”. 

One issue. Two conversations.  

Just as translators are used to facilitate conversations between delegates from different countries, it seems as though a translator, or some way to facilitate a dialogue, is desperately needed between these two groups. Without a way to merge these perspectives, the common goal of effectively addressing climate displacement is unlikely to happen. While the recommendations set forth by the Warsaw International Mechanism may be an essential building block for policy-makers, without considering the voices of vulnerable communities, the effectiveness of these policies seem not only questionable, but also too late. 

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