Actor and Refugees International Vice Chairman Sam Waterston on climate change and people displayed by natural disasters.
By Sam Waterston
If anyone wonders whether climate change is having an effect on ordinary people yet, they need only consider the following facts. While there were 26 million people internally displaced by conflict in 2008, a staggering 36 million people were forced to flee for their lives as a result of natural disasters (which have tripled in number over the past several decades). While longer-term impacts gradually work their way through the system, people – millions of us – are feeling the effects of climate change right now.
We aren’t ready. There remains reluctance in some quarters to accept, then to digest and then to act upon the findings of the broad consensus of scientists worldwide as to the root causes of these disasters. The world hasn’t prepared itself to respond to their force, nor to their numbers. It hasn’t done the work yet that could mitigate the effects of climate-related disasters on people and minimize displacement. What is already upon us, we’re not ready to face, not ready to respond, not ready to recognize the demands the victims make on our consciences and on our governments. And we are not ready to face the fact that doing nothing, or reacting weakly or slowly, will have bad consequences for the security and stability of the world, and specifically, for us.
The problem is complex. It isn’t always clear what is new about it and therefore attributable to climate change, and what is just a part of the age-old migration of peoples and shifts in weather. There were seven-year droughts in Biblical times. Desertification of North Africa got its start in Roman times. Agriculture and deforestation, hunting and urbanization and other human activities all played a part in changing the world long before the burning of fossil fuels overloaded the atmosphere with green house gases or burdened the sea with more carbon than it can healthily handle. What is new is the scale and the impact.
Recognizing that the complexity of the problem couldn’t excuse not coming to grips with it, organizations like Refugees International acted. In 2009, just before his death, RI’s then- president Ken Bacon understood the threat to world stability that 36 million homeless, vulnerable and desperate people would represent – not to speak of the moral demand they should place on our consciences. So he gave a founding gift to RI’s climate displacement program, now named for him and his wife, Darcy. In little over a year of existence, it has already done important work – making detailed recommendations to policy- makers based on field trips to Pakistan last year and to Colombia earlier this year after both countries were devastated by floods.
Globally-conscious organizations like Refugees International deliver direct intelligence to the people in government and at the UN who are best placed to act. RI provides eyewitness reports, always combined with specific recommendations for action, which can bring quick, thoughtful assistance to those in need.
Sam Waterston is an Academy Award- nominated actor, producer and director. He serves on the board of Refugees International and will be the master of ceremonies at its 32nd anniversary dinner on Thursday, May 5. For more information, visit www.refugeesinternational. org/anniversary-dinner.