What International Climate Justice Means for Sri Lanka

March 29, 2023 | 6:09 pm
Fishers in Sri Lankan at the beach.Sanjali De Silva/UCS
Sanjali De Silva
Communications Officer

Earlier this month I visited my family in Sri Lanka and found that everything has changed since my last visit almost four years ago. As I embraced my family, I felt a palpable fatigue from the pressures of the pandemic, political unrest, and geopolitical turmoil bubbling beneath the surface.

As Sri Lanka recovers from the worst economic crisis since its independence, climate change impacts are also quietly fueling and exacerbating the situation. My trip to Sri Lanka presented a stark reminder of how international leaders so often fail to protect the Global South from the climate crisis, and why initiatives to demand accountability from those most responsible for this crisis are paramount.

We spent a lot of time indoors during my recent visit, dodging the heat and avoiding torrential downpours. An unusual practice during a mid-March visit.

Every trip back to Sri Lanka, climate change impacts become more visible. Over handfuls of rice that nearly 30% of the country is struggling to afford, talk of flash floods, prolonged drought, sea level rise and extreme weather dominated more than ever before.

For a country reliant on farming to feed communities and keep its economy alive, climate change impacts that disproportionately threaten agriculture areas have far-reaching and devastating impacts.

Between 1998 and 2012, the total loss from natural disasters in Sri Lanka was over $570 million, predominantly from flooding and cyclone damage, some of which caused irreparable damage to the southern coast of the island where my dad and his four siblings grew up.

“Sri Lanka is shrinking,” my auntie said very matter-of-factly one night, her offhand comment serving as an acute reminder of rising sea levels along the coast.

Wallets are strapped as my uncles write checks to fix broken roofs, and hearts are heavy looking at old family pictures of the beautiful beaches that once were.

We regularly chowed on ambul thiyal, a traditional fish curry and a delicacy during the upcoming New Year holiday. Fish makes up 50% of Sri Lankans animal protein intake, three times the global average. But sea level rise and pollution are threatening this critical resource and the livelihoods of over one million fishers around the country.

Climate change in Sri Lanka is driving a hunger crisis, an economic crisis, and a political crisis.

Meanwhile, Sri Lanka’s relative heat-trapping emissions are next to none compared with major emitting nations like the United States. The people of Sri Lanka feel the impacts of climate change every day, yet those effects are overwhelmingly caused by the self-serving, irresponsible actions of the fossil fuel industry and nations unwilling to do their part to stop the climate crisis. My family and the people of Sri Lanka deserve better.

This year, Sri Lanka joined an effort, led by the Government of Vanuatu, calling on the United Nations General Assembly to pass a resolution asking the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to issue critical guidance to clarify the obligation of nations to protect current and future generations from climate change.

Today, more than 130 UN nations came together in consensus to adopt the resolution, taking the fight for climate justice an important step forward. For countries like Sri Lanka—whose land is under siege by other nations’ climate negligence and who rarely get a seat at the table—this resolution is pivotal.

Seeing the UN recognize climate change as a threat to human rights and intergenerational justice, I feel a sense of hope that my nangis and malis—my little cousins—may have a prosperous future ahead of them in Sri Lanka.

Following a grim outlook from the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) last week, this new resolution could help ensure countries can meet mitigation goals and slow the crippling impacts of climate change.

In the weeks and months ahead, it’s critical that our international leaders continue this drumbeat of work and move to eliminate fossil fuel influence from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) process, equitably implement the loss and damage fund created at COP27 in Egypt and effectively hold individual nations accountable for their role in accelerating the climate crisis.

As a young climate activist, a science advocate, and a proud Sri Lankan, I’m calling on our world’s top leaders to step up. My family halfway across the globe, the communities of small island nations all the world over, and our planet are counting on you.