Climate change victims

  • 2011•12•01

    Vesselin Popovski

    Climate change victims

    Photo: L. Patron/UNU

    Humans can be victims of other humans — in wars and crimes. Humans can be victims of nature, and suffer from earthquakes and other hazards. Nature can suffer from humans — as the impact of excessive over-consumption of the planet’s resources provokes climate change. And humans can suffer from climate change — ironically, from the suffering of the nature, inflicted by humans.

    Human-induced disasters have a clear guilt/responsibility and a clear victimhood. Natural disasters have a clear victimhood, but unclear direct responsibility as they result from the “anger of mother-nature” (though indirect responsibility can be attached to governments). When it comes to climate change disasters and victims, we witness an interesting situation. Everybody — governments, the private sector and even individual people with luxurious over-consumptive lifestyles — could be the victimizer, but also everybody could be a potential victim.

    Type of



    Political/military disasters: armed conflict, civil war, atrocities, terrorism Governments,
    Rebel forces
    Private sector (weapons industry)
    Economic disasters:
    Cultural Revolution in China,
    pre-1989 Romania,
    Governments Private sector
    Environmental disasters:
    1984 Bhopal,
    1986 Chernobyl,
    2010 BP Oil Spill
    Private sector Governments can regulate, mitigate, punish polluters
    Biological disasters:
    viruses, diseases, epidemics
    “Mother-Nature” Governments, private sector can fund research, prevent, mitigate
    Natural disasters:
    earthquakes, tsunami
    “Mother-Nature” Governments, private sector can warn, mitigate, prepare people
    Climate change disasters:
    sea level rise, extreme weather events, frequent cyclones, flooding, heats, fires

    The various types of disasters can be inter-connected. Diseases and epidemics can spread as a consequence of armed conflicts or devastating earthquakes. A natural disaster can be a catalyst for conflict resolution (Aceh 2005). People in the aftermath of massive disaster can cooperate to survive (Tohoku 2011). But natural disaster might also unleash violence (Hurricane Katrina 2005). Climate change can intensify otherwise natural disasters, bringing a human-induced element in them, and accordingly, such natural disasters become less “natural”, expanding humankind’s responsibility.

    In a forthcoming article in Sustainability Science Journal (January 2012), I introduce this new type of victimhood in an effort to open opportunities for further research on possible prevention, accountability measures, environmental tribunals and compensation mechanisms to remedy climate change victims.

    I argue that climate change victims are:

    • different from the victims of violent crimes, which are committed by clearly identifiable perpetrators and dealt with by the law enforcement and criminal justice systems. With climate change victims, in contrast, the perpetrators are not identifiable and traditional criminal justice, based on investigating crimes and prosecuting perpetrators, would not work;
    • different from environmental victims, as with these — for example, in the case of industrial pollution or oil spills — corporate responsibility can normally be associated, investigated and prosecuted. There is a linkage between the two victimizations: the industrial over-exploitation of natural resources and the consequences to ecosystems provokes both environmental catastrophes and climate change. Environmental law has developed litigation for dealing with corporate polluters and compensating victims, and it will be interesting to explore whether this may serve as groundwork to develop compensation mechanisms for climate change victims;
    • different from victims of natural disasters or events unaffected by human activity. Climate change victims are individuals and groups not necessarily damaged by a single natural hazard — rather they are gradually victimized by deteriorating climate change-induced conditions;
    • possibly victims of human rights violations, perpetrated by States, through action or inaction. There is a growing recognition of the right to live in a clean and healthy environment and have access to related information. A state’s failure to warn people of a natural disaster and facilitate their evacuation has been successfully litigated in the European Court for Human Rights (ECtHR), with Budayeva v Russia finding violations and awarding compensation to the victims. It will be interesting to see whether human rights law and court practice can be utilized in the future with regard to climate change victimhood;
    • not necessarily displaced people, though much of the literature has been focusing on this. Climate change victims might not be migrants — on the contrary, I argue that migration itself could be a major de-victimizing force, an adaptation strategy.

    As the first two differentiations are clear I will focus on the last three below.

    Climate change victims are not natural disaster victims

    Although circumstances, conditions, outcomes and perceptions might appear to be similar, there are differences between victimhood as a direct result of singular environmental events (earthquakes) and victimhood arising from a continual human-induced climate change. Catastrophic natural events that impact large groups of people have been recorded for time immemorial, whereas human-induced increased frequency of extreme weather events, resulting from climate change, is only a recently elaborated victimizing force. However, if a pure natural disaster occurs today, those who have experienced it most probably would attribute the causes to human agencies — usually a governmental agency; and this may even be more so, when the frequency of natural disasters increases. The catastrophic firestorms in Australia (2009) and Russia (2010) have been attributed — not only in popular conception, but also among scientists — to human-induced climate change.

    As the science develops, and governments grow stronger and we develop global governance institutions, victims of natural disasters are becoming (and correctly so) more demanding. What produces the victimization is not so much the cause of the disaster, but rather the lack of early warning, inadequate preparedness and a lack of capacity of government agencies to respond to the disasters. What makes people victims are not just acts of “mother-nature” — victimhood derives from poor governance, negligence, lack of early warning and early responses to disasters — and therefore such victimizations are regarded as human rights violations.

    Climate change victims are victims of human rights violations

    When states fail to respond efficiently, when relief efforts are ignored or delayed and people experience additional suffering from natural disasters, victims can approach courts and demand compensation. Hurricane Katrina victims were encouraged by the landmark ruling on 18 November 2009 that established the Army Corps of Engineers’ negligent failure to maintain and operate the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet properly, causing fatal levee breaches and the subsequent catastrophic flooding of New Orleans.

    The ECtHR in Guerra and others v. Italy (see HUDOC database) was approached by applicants living near a high-risk fertilizer factory with a history of accidents who were denied information on emergency and evacuation plans for the area. The ECtHR found violation of Art. 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights — an important precedent of establishing a right to vital environmental information. In a more serious case including loss of life, Oneryildiz v Turkey, a fire at a landfill killed members of the applicant’s family and the ECtHR, similarly to Guerra, found that ”with regard to such hazardous activities, public access to clear and full information is deemed to be a basic human right”. Taken together, Guerra and Oneryldiz decisions can frame a duty of states to inform citizens about hazards that may cause a risk to their life and well-being.

    The risks associated with climate change are more diverse and difficult to identify. However, the logic of the above court’s rulings suggests that should a government be in possession of relevant information and existing contingency and emergency plans in case of climate-change-induced extreme weather events, it would be under obligation to release such information to citizens.

    In two further cases, the ECtHR addressed state failure to prevent loss of life as a result of flooding (Murillo Saldias) and mudslides (Budayeva) — hazardous events very close to possible future climate change victimization scenarios. When the flooding of a campsite following a strong rain resulted in loss of life, the ECtHR in Murillo Saldias v Spain found the application inadmissible on procedural grounds (non-exhausted domestic remedies), but this nevertheless set a precedent of deliberating state responsibility to protect people from floods.

    Budayeva v. Russia was successfully litigated, and the decision clearly established the state’s obligation to warn potential victims of repeated disasters. In July 2000, a deadly mudslide swept through Tyrnauz, Caucasus, killing eight people. Various types of mud-retention dams protected the town, but these had been badly damaged by earlier mudslides and never repaired, despite scientific warnings. Two weeks before the mudslide, the local Ministry for Disaster Relief again was warned by experts of imminent dangers and was requested to establish observation points to issue warnings to evacuate people, but no such measures were taken. The Court’s decision set an excellent precedent, pronouncing Russia’s “failure to discharge its positive obligation to protect the right to life”, and in particular the “omission of the authorities to implement land-planning and emergency relief policies”, despite the fact that the area was particularly vulnerable to mudslides, thus exposing the residents to “mortal risk”.

    The Budayeva decision firmed and crystallized the State’s responsibility for warning citizens in the face of repeated natural disasters both in substance (lack of maintaining protective defence infrastructure, lack of warning to evacuate) and in procedure (lack of investigating negligence as criminal conduct). The decision can serve as precedent-setting to climate change victimization, because of the repeated character of the failure to mitigate the risk, give warning, facilitate eventual evacuation and investigate negligence.

    Climate change victimization can be linked not only to violations of civil and political rights, but also to violations of social and economic rights. In fact, probably more often victims can refer to the latter category of rights, because they require more positive and preventative obligations by governments. A human rights-based approach should be central both to governments’ efforts to mitigate or avoid negative impacts from climate change — such as carbon tax and regulations against polluters — but also to climate adaptation policies, where the implementation of positive obligations can strengthen and sustain human security. The whole volume of social and economic rights in fact can be seen as a relevant factor to build resilience and adapt to climate change challenges.

    Climate change victims might not be migrants

    Climate change victims are not necessarily those who migrate as a result of deteriorating climate conditions. The victims of Hurricane Katrina were mostly those who stayed, in addition to some who moved. One of the reasons the academic literature has focused extensively on “climate change refugees” is that the discipline of refugees studies — much faster than the discipline of victimology — has engaged actively in research on the links between climate change and displacement. However, I question the usage of term climate change refugees; they are not “refugees” as defined by the 1951 Convention, which covers people persecuted on political grounds. This means they are “displaced” people, so the proper term is “climate change displacement”. More substantively, I argue that climate change victims might not be those who move. On the contrary, a voluntary relocation, properly regulated and compensated, could be a major instrument for climate change adaptation.

    To predict that climate change may produce 250 million migrants by 2050 — a figure given without any serious evidence and re-quoted even by serious scholars — may help to raise awareness and alarm governments to pay more attention to climate change. Gwynne Dyer’s book Climate Wars was such an alarm bell, but insufficiently substantiated. Global warming has been ongoing over the last 30 or 50 years, but the number of wars has actually dramatically declined in that period. People facing dangers do not necessarily fight — they may cooperate to reduce the dangers. Research, such as Marion Couldrey and Maurice Herson (2008), that determines approximate numbers of future climate change refugees, where will they come from, where will they go, and how much money they will need, remains hypothetical and alarmist.

    It is true that the number of migrants, including climate migrants, has increased globally. Looking for better jobs or better living conditions is natural for human beings and people will continue to move, enabled by globalization. The boundary between forced and unforced migration becomes blurred — people move often because of some degree of real or potential socio-economic or environmental stress, and an interesting question would be at what degree of such stress does one cross the line from voluntary to involuntary migration? People’s movement could often be half-voluntary/half-involuntary. Many would have loved to stay, work, live and die close to their hometown, but economic and environmental conditions may push them to move. In this sense economic migration is similar to climate change-induced migration.

    Rather than being a problem, as we often hear, migration (voluntary, obviously not human trafficking) is a possible solution to many problems: political, economic, social, environmental. There is nothing apocalyptic, if decisions to migrate — even on the scale of millions — are made with well-informed options. Dangers to coastal areas threatened by sea-level rise can be anticipated decades in advance and people may decide to migrate or decide to stay.

    I therefore detach migration when addressing climate change victims. My definition of climate change victims addresses people who have been, or are likely to be, severely affected by climate change, while at the same time having inadequate human, social and economic capital for climate change adaptation, including relocation. Certainly, displaced non-resilient people facing climate change challenges could be considered as one group of the category climate change victims.

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    This article is based on the publication in Springer Sustainable Science.