Over the past few months, Dusty Farnan, OP, raised our collective awareness of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in preparation for the High-Level Political Forum (HLPF). To further this education, it is imperative to understand that part of the significance of the SDGs lies in their intentionally interconnected design. Instead of a group of siloed goals, the SDGs represent an intertwined framework. This approach to development weaves together economic, social, and environmental dimensions, while acknowledging that issues intersect – a lack of progress on one goal can hinder progress on others. Similarly, progress towards achieving one goal can positively impact another.
In the context of the work of the Dominican Leadership Conference at the UN, advocacy efforts often address SDGs through this interconnected lens. For example, earlier this year, we began speaking with the global community of Dominican Sisters to learn more about climate change and its relationship to migration (linking together SDGs 15: Life on Land, 13: Climate Action, and 10: Reduced Inequalities). We conducted interviews with individuals working with, and in, climate-affected communities from the regions of Eastern Africa, the Caribbean, and Oceania. The resulting discussions focused on the witnessed impacts of climate change and the nexus between this phenomena and migration. Here is what we found:
Climate change and its ramifications continue to grow, and the trend of climate-driven migration is accelerating. To provide an idea of the scope of the issue, approximately 24 million people are reported as displaced due to climate change or environmental disaster each year. Representatives that we spoke with described increased prevalence of wildfires, flooding, hurricanes, coastal erosion, drought, and sea-level rise. These phenomena displace people from their homes, both temporarily and permanently, resulting in disrupted and lost livelihoods, thereby exacerbating food insecurity and poverty. For example, the increase in unpredictable rains (droughts and floods) in Kenya and Uganda pose substantial challenges to the ability to gauge when to plant crops, leading to loss of income and even famine. Similar experiences of the negative impacts of unpredictable rains have also been reported in the Dominican Republic. Farmers in these areas often will attempt to adapt their practices, such as planting more drought resistant seed varieties or changing the types of crops planted. However, despite adaptation efforts, the growing impacts of climate change, especially when combined with other economic and political factors, make the option to stay an untenable one. People are pushed to migrate, to relocate to a place where they hope for a better chance to survive and an opportunity to support their families. Furthermore, many regions are becoming uninhabitable, especially small-island developing states (SIDS) affected by rising sea levels. In the case of the Solomon Islands, sea-level rise increasingly drives communities to move further inland. If climate change and its ramifications continue to grow, and water levels rise unabated, where will inhabitants go? They will be forcibly displaced. This consequence of climate change poses a serious threat to local cultures. Although some residents of SIDS are actively looking to relocate, other populations insist on the right to stay where they are, in efforts to preserve their culture and its profound connection to the land. As a result, our advocacy efforts support both the right to choose to stay and the right to choose to migrate.
The second point of significance of the SDGs, worth noting here, is unlike their predecessor (the Millennium Development Goals), the SDGs are universal; they target and apply uniformly to all countries and appeal to everyone to take action. One of the greatest injustices of climate change is that wealthy countries that have contributed the most to climate change (measured through carbon emissions) are also among the least vulnerable to its impacts. Whereas, lower-contributing, often developing, countries tend to be much more vulnerable. For example, small island countries with low emissions, like Kiribati, could soon be subsumed by rising sea levels, and its people will be permanently displaced. Thus, in alignment with the universality of the SDGs, whether we ourselves experience the impact of climate change does not change the reality that we all have a role to play in climate justice and climate action.
To learn more about climate-induced displacement, including what you can do about it, see the brochure we contributed to and created in collaboration with the NGO Committee on Migration’s Subcommittee on Climate/Environment-Induced Displacement: https://bit.ly/3zD6zhl
How is the Catholic Church approaching this issue? In paragraph 25 of Laudato Si’ Pope Francis acknowledges, “changes in climate…in turn affects the livelihood of the poor, who are then forced to leave their homes, with great uncertainty for their future and that of their children.” He elaborates by describing the “tragic rise in the number of migrants seeking to flee from the growing poverty caused by environmental degradation.” In addition, at a recent migration summit, Cardinal Michael Czerny, undersecretary for the Vatican’s Migrants and Refugees Section, addressed the pastoral task of welcoming, protecting, promoting, and integrating. He encouraged welcoming and ministering to migrants as well as working to address the conditions that displace them.
“Meaningful opportunities seem available…to pursue immigration policy reform, including policy innovations…and to advance protections for migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees, comprehensive immigration reform, more robust commitments to refugee resettlement, protections for climate displaced persons, addressing the drivers of migration, equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines in sending countries.”
As faithful, let us answer this call.