In the run up to the General Election, people might be thinking short term. So it was hugely refreshing to welcome over 120 people to City Hall on International Human Rights Day to discuss two of the issues that will define our lives over the coming decades – climate change and migration.
The event, titled ‘The Climate and Our Community’, was organised in partnership by the Mayor’s Office, Bristol Green Capital Partnership, Bristol Refugee Rights and Bristol City of Sanctuary. Its aim was to open up the conversation on climate change to all of Bristol’s diverse communities, and to explore the links between our changing climate and the growing number of people who are forcibly displaced around the world.
To kick off the event I wanted to emphasise the context within which this conversation was happening. We have a long history of work on these issues in Bristol and plenty more planned in the years ahead. Through our international engagement Bristol has played a significant role in the development of the UN Global Compacts on Migration and Refugees. Now through my place on the Leadership Board of the Mayors Migration Council we have the opportunity to keep making the links between city discussions about migration and the work of C40 and others on helping cities tackle climate change. And as we seek to have a global impact, we need to make the most of our globally-connected population. Bristol’s many diverse communities are a key strength of our city, and this event was an important contribution to ensuring that discussions of social justice are fully inclusive of the communities affected. I wanted to highlight to all those present that the discussions today will help to set the agenda for me, for Bristol, and for others around the world as we seek to address these issues over the long term.
The conference continued with some presentations that brought home the scale of the challenges that we are all facing. Dr Jo House from the University of Bristol shared some of the latest science on the impacts of climate change, and its connection to displacement. From sea level change to heatwaves, from food insecurity to natural disasters, the impact of climate change will be widespread and irreversible. And one of the biggest impacts will be a dramatic rise in the number of people forced to leave their homes and communities due to climate-related disasters and the destruction of their livelihoods.
The International Displacement Monitoring Centre has declared that in the first six months of 2019 a record 7 million people were displaced by extreme weather events. The human impact of such a shocking statistic was brought home through a presentation from Dominik Byrne from the charity Bristol Link with Beira. They help facilitate the friendship agreement between Bristol and Beira in Mozambique. Mozambique has been designated as the 3rd most vulnerable country to climate change in Africa, with 60% of its population living in locations prone to natural hazards. So it was sadly no surprise when Beira and its 500,000 population were devastated by Cyclone Idai in March 2019. Over 90% of the city collapsed, causing $800 million in damage and destroying 104 of the city’s 150 schools. Bristol Link with Beira has played a key role in facilitating the rebuilding work since this terrible tragedy, and this city-to-city link is a great example of the way that global solidarity can be made real in the face of the devastating consequences of climate change.
April Humble, a researcher on climate change migration and border security, helped put the discussion into historical perspective with an overview of human mobility over time. This helped highlight the reality that people throughout time have always moved, that people in from the UK have been especially mobile around the world, and that the realities of globalisation and climate change will see more people than ever on the move in the future. Whilst national leaders debate how to fight against this reality, it will be up to cities and communities to advance a conversation about how we can adapt to the future with compassion and justice.
As well as informative presentations, the conference also created opportunities for participation, through discussions in pairs and at tables but also through an interactive storytelling session looking at the myths surrounding Bristol’s geography – the story of our land.
Perhaps the highlight of the conference was the contribution of those who are experts through experience when it comes to climate change and migration. Ahmed Aden and Xhemile Kaza both shared their personal experiences of coming to the UK as asylum seekers and the role that climate change had played in their journey. They highlighted both positive and negative elements of their experiences in Bristol, challenging us to live up to our status as a City of Sanctuary. In doing so they exemplified the huge asset that our refugee and asylum seeking population represent to Bristol. Their contribution also sparked a broader conversation about how we think about refugees and asylum seekers, and whether national and international rules need to change to encompass those displaced by climate change.
The conference ended with a discussion on Bristol’s climate change strategy, emphasising the practical work that is happening and that needs to happen to adapt to our changing climate. Many of the actions require partnership working through our One City Approach, highlighting the responsibility of everyone in the city to step up to the challenges before us.
These challenges can be daunting, but the diversity and quality of contribution throughout this event give me great hope that Bristol can play a world-leading role in addressing the great issues of our time.