UN predicts there will be up to 50 million 'climate refugees' by next year
I must confess: I was one of them. It's not that I don't love nature - some of my happiest moments have happened while I trekked down a muddy forest trial or waded in a river somewhere faraway. I've hugged trees in Cuba, explored caves in the Pantanal, camped on a treetop in the Amazon. But I will admit that I was one of those people that always saw environmental activism as somewhat of a luxury. Why would I fight against the extinction of whales or butterflies when so many people were dying from hunger and violence?
Today I have my answer. I just got back from from Eugene, Oregon, a charming city of 150,000 known for its hippies, progressive politics, and astounding natural beauty. I travelled there with Kelly Matheson to attend the Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide (ELAW) and the Public Interest Environmental Law Conference (PIELC) - two meetings that bring together lawyers, environmentalists, and activists from around the world.
What I learned very quickly is this: environmental rights are human rights.
Take it from the small island of Kivalina, off the coast of Alaska, which will be completely underwater within the next 2-3 years because of the melting polar ice caps that are causing the ocean's tides to rise much quicker than anyone expected. Kivalina's 377 Inupiat residents depend on the ice sheets that surround the island to hunt and to protect them from harsh winter storms. Before global warming, they were able to go out on these ice sheets and hunt from December through May (and then store food for the rest of the year). Today, they can only do that between December and February...and soon not even that. This video by TITVWeekly contains testimonies and footage shot by local residents in the past months:
Last year, the city of Kivalina filed an unprecedented lawsuit against the 24 largest emitters of greenhouse gases in the US, including Exxon Mobil, eight other oil companies, 14 power companies, and one coal company. They claim that the large amounts of greenhouse gases emitted by these companies over the years contributed to the climate crisis that's threatening their island's existence. And they're asking for the companies to cover the cost of relocating the entire community to a safe place, which could run up to $400 million (read the full case statement here).
Kivalina's residents are climate refugees - or people who are or will be displaced from their homes because of environmental disasters induced by climate change. The UN estimates that there will be 50 million climate refugees by 2010 - that's next year. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, this number could reach 1 billion by 2050. Think Hurricane Katrina to the tenth power.
So while it may seem that some environmentalists (especially those in richer countries) are focusing on saving the whales and butterflies for the sake of nature itself, hundreds of communities from around the world are fighting to save the whales and butterflies for the sake of the people that depend on them to live, as the Chilean lawyer Fernando Dougnac so beautifully stated. These are families fighting for their land and livelihoods against the power oil companies and other extractive industries like mining and timber. Or those fighting privatization efforts to guarantee their basic right to water, like the communities we're partnering with in El Salvador on the El Agua Es Nuestra campaign.
One inspiring example of resistance is the story of Pablo Fajardo, an Ecuadorean community activist turned lawyer who has spent the past 15 years helping his community fight a case against ChevronTexaco, who they claim have spilled more than 17 billion gallons of oil in their backyards without accepting responsibility, compensating the families, or cleaning the damaged rivers and lakes. Here's an Amazonwatch video on the case, which continues to navigate a complex legal maze in the courts of New York and Quito:
After meeting with Pablo and so many others at the ELAW/PIELC conferences, I write you today duly rehabilitated and fully converted. Somewhat embarrassed by my past ignorance, but completely invigorated by the enormity of the task that lies ahead. Many scientists believe the tipping point for the climate crisis is 2012, which leaves us three years to make some pretty radical changes.
"Environmental rights and human rights are one in the same..." - I've heard it over and over again in the past couple of days. To live, we need quality air, water, and land...butterflies and all. Sounds pretty obvious now that I think about it....
Stay tuned for more: we brought back interviews with some of the best and brightest of the ELAW/PIELC, including Pablo Fajardo and many others. Check into the Hub around Earth Day for the full package!