The New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants states that “migration should be a choice, not a necessity”. However, there are countless groups of forced and involuntary migrants, including refugees, stateless persons, people who are trafficked and those internally displaced by disasters and conflict.
During recent years, a new category of involuntary migrants is emerging: ‘environmentally displaced people’. These are people forced to migrate because natural disasters or degradation of environmental resources resulting from climate change have rendered their livelihoods unsustainable. According to a study co-funded by the University of Oxford, UNHCR, and the Governments of Norway and Switzerland, between 50 and 200 million people are expected to be displaced due to climate change by 2050.
We talked to Kibiriti Majuto, a 20-year-old refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo based in the United States. He is the main author of the Zero Hour Platform, a movement that advocates for the need for climate justice and for nations to welcome more environmentally displaced people.
What is the Zero Hour Platform, and what inspired you to start it?
The Zero Hour Platform is a nationwide coalition presenting a list of demands that we want our elected officials in the United States to implement in order to effectively address the impact of climate change. We were inspired by the Children’s Climate Lawsuit, and we aim at guiding the actions taken by governments at all levels—state, county, city—to achieve climate justice. We also work to engage populations to take action on climate change, which we hope will produce an effect that will eventually push governments to act.
At the Zero Hour Climate March, which took place in July 2018, people were chanting “youth for climate action now”. What role can youth play in the fight against climate change and for the protection of our environment?
The fight against climate change and environmental degradation is a fight for our future. This is why we need young people to stand up for climate action in their cities, states and countries. There are many things youth can do to fight climate change, such as voting for candidates that work to achieve climate justice, reduce meat consumption, demand affordable and sustainable housing, or reduce energy consumption by promoting the use of renewable energies. I see young people nowadays working together to create collectives within their communities to teach environmentally friendly skills—permaculture, plant-based cooking—and restore local ecosystems. I believe it is our responsibility to act directly against environmental degradation and support climate action, organizing our communities to demand the necessary changes to address it.
One of the many consequences of climate change is an increased number of people forcefully displaced. What is the Zero Hour Platform doing with regards to environmentally displaced people?
First, we are asking governments to revise the term ‘environmentally displaced people’ in a way that tackles the ‘protection gap’ regarding their rights. This is an essential first step to support resettlement policies for those affected by environment-induced forced migration. We also ask developed nations to work together to welcome more environmentally displaced people within their borders, providing them safety and accommodation. This is a sign of international solidarity, at a time when we are seeing a lot of people leaving their homeland due to climate change and environmental degradation. Our coalition is still very young, and, as a refugee myself, I would like to see it doing more work with the refugee community in general. Right now, we do not believe that migration is indeed a choice.
At the personal level, what makes you be so committed to the protection of our environment?
We are living under what some scholars and journalists call the ‘sixth extinction’. This concept is based on Elizabeth Kolbert’s book, which argues that the Earth is suffering from a modern, man-made extinction. The book won the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 2015. I cannot stand by and watch our planet be destroyed and the exploitation of our environment. I want to change that thinking.