Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Spotlight: Many Strong Voices

Ilan Kelman is a sharp and dedicated researcher, his native tongue unmistakeably academic. But behind the carefully constructed sentences lies a character of distinctly moral motivation. I’d call him an activist but I’m not sure he’d identify with such a subjective term. The Co-Director of Many Strong Voices – a joint initiative to strengthen collaboration between Arctic and Small Island States on climate change, I first met Ilan a year ago. During a predictable Question and Answer session at a conference, he rose from his seat and with a brief remark, broke through the silent controversy that so often punctuates policy events of this kind.

‘Overall, the theory behind so-called ‘climate (change) refugees’ has major critiques which have never been fully addressed,’ Kelman says. Ilan is resolutely adverse to easy generalisations on this issue. What then, in the words of Sheila Watt-Cloutier[1], unites people from balmy archipelagos and cold expanses of the northern tundra? According to the MSV’s website although the natural and human environments differ greatly, the existential questions climate change raises for both are comparable. In the Arctic and in Small Island Developing States climate change poses a serious threat to the social and cultural fabric of society. True for us all in the long term but most immediately clear in these regions. SIDS view themselves as the ‘barometer’ for climate change.

Although climate change undoubtedly plays a role in determining migration decisions it is one factor among many. For Kelman, the situation faced in the Arctic and SIDS is the exception to the rule. ‘There is little doubt that some Arctic and SIDS communities have been pushed towards migration due to climate change.’ Despite popular perception sea-level rise is rarely the issue of first concern for SIDS communities. Likewise in the Arctic concerns today are about less sea ice and warmer temperatures on land. ‘Less sea ice means more waves – increasing coastal erosion, warmer temperatures mean that overland winter routes, such as ice and snow roads, are too dangerous to traverse.’ Irrespective of the future impact of sea level rise the impacts felt today may be more complex but are already affecting livelihoods and social structures. ‘The main way of reducing the risks is to recognise how the environment is changing and to adjust (adapt) livelihoods and cultures to those changes. That can render traditional knowledge and traditional social structures untenable.’ But Kelman questions whether this is truly reducing risk. ‘It might simply substitute climate change risks for social and cultural change risks… we do not know.’

What MSV do know is that communities are already trying to address these challenges, often with little support. Kelman is adamant that people should to be able to make choices regarding their own futures, migration or otherwise, on their own terms. And that they should be able to do so ‘without worrying about also fighting to have their decisions and decision-making processes accepted by others.’ Part of MSV’s mandate is to support better representation of Arctic and SIDS people at the international level. When I ask Ilan whether he’s ever attended a Conference of the Parties (COP) he’s quick to point out that there are people better qualified to represent MSV. Spokespeople from the Arctic and SIDS themselves. The small size of many SIDS means that the international negotiator is often also a legitimate local voice. More