Climate refugees, stress and paradigm shifts

James Kavanagh MRICS

MRICS, Director RICS Land Group (RICS)

There can be no denying that climate change is real. Perhaps for those of us lucky enough to live in geographies that have avoided some of its more devastating impacts it can seem abstract, but for those parts of the world least able to deal with the effects, the consequences have been disastrous.

For those without a voice on the world stage — those outside of the “G20 club” and outside of the prevailing neoliberal economic model, either due to poverty, landlessness or post-colonial legacy issues, such as corruption, despotism, governance etc. — gatherings like COP offer a brief but important platforms to highlight the reality of how climate change is affecting millions of lives on a daily basis.

Climate refugees

The United Nations and similar agencies, such as United States Agency for International Development (USAID), have underlined the brutality of climate change. More recently, the global issue of “climate refugees” came to the fore.

There are currently more people designated as refugees than at any time since World War Two, and climate change is expected to add 200 million more. Europeans struggle to deal with even a small proportion of this number coming from war-torn regions of the Middle East, so surely it’s in our own interests to help mitigate climate change issues at the source.

Climate stress

Much work has already been done to connect climate change to land tenure, resource management and property rights, and initiatives such as Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) have started to link carbon benefits to developing world economies.

The importance of this work cannot be underemphasised. Climate stress could:

  • increase conflict over scarce resources such as water, minerals and arable land
  • put vulnerable groups, such as women, indigenous people and children, under increasing pressure to vacate land
  • lead to the corruption of ownership of resources and carbon markets. Increased income could benefit the few and further entrench elitist hierarchies, but also destabilise investment markets
  • Decrease the value of agricultural land in many parts of the developing world as productivity drops, increasing the pressure on ecologically vulnerable areas and driving the scope for land and resource conflict

Paradigm shift

Our current neoliberal market-driven economic model is not really geared up, ethically or philosophically, to deal with such issues. As author Naomi Klein states in her recent book ‘This Changes Everything’, we need to think on a paradigm shift “embedded in interdependence rather than hyperindividualism, reciprocity rather than dominance, and cooperation rather than hierarchy."

As a basic argument, will we, in the west, agree to increased energy bills, and will energy companies accept reduced state subsidies and profits? Or in an age where our power grids are under increasing strain — the London Shard uses as much electricity as a small UK town — is localised energy production and use the way forward? And can localised energy production be transferred to the developing world (renewable, of course) to help reduce carbon emissions and our addiction to carbon-based energy?

Every little helps

The circular economy, in which we reuse resources, is bringing concepts of how environmental and waste management issues need to be thought of as a living, interdependent system, and how construction (the WRAP Directive), electronics and rare metals (WEEE Directive), and even households, can contribute.

Waste contributes to roughly 5% of the global emissions total, but has a much wider periphery of connected industries, such as transport and production. While we’ve been discussing big global issues, the adage of “every little helps” really does ring true. It may seem crazy to worry about cycling rather than driving when coal-fired power plants are spewing toxins into the atmosphere in China, but every positive action does help to mitigate climate change.

What is the World Built Environment Forum?

The World Built Environment Forum is the global network of built environment professionals and their stakeholders aimed at combining knowledge, skills and resources to create and manage the built environment that global populations need.  

What is the Annual Summit?

The Annual Summit offers a regular meeting place for the World Built Environment Forum to discuss the most pressing challenges and identify practical solutions, and to network with international peers. Held in a different urban hub every year, the first two editions of the Annual Summit took place in Washington DC in 2016 and in Shanghai in 2017. The next Annual Summit will be in London on 23-24 April 2018.

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