Loading content

COP27 and modern slavery

Those most affected must co-develop efforts to address loss and damage, including modern slavery, blogs Prof Alex Balch.

Published: 29th November 2022

Image: Yelena Odintsova via Pexels

At the latest Climate Change Conference in Sharm el-Sheikh (COP27) the ‘breakthrough’ was not about reducing usage of fossil fuels but instead an agreement to establish a fund to address ‘loss and damage’.

While there is growing anger and frustration at the inability of these meetings to achieve meaningful reduction of greenhouse gases, recognition of the linkages between climate change, injustice and inequality, is welcome. What is now urgently needed is robust evidence to understand and quantify loss and damage, and the best ways to address it.

Modern slavery impacts need to be part of that conversation. Firstly, different kinds of exploitation including modern slavery are among the major risks for populations most affected by climate change. When environmental disasters strike, many people are forced into migration in the search of safety and opportunities to provide for their families, and those who stay at home face major challenges to rebuild their lives and local economies. Secondly, there is much that connects the policy challenges of modern slavery and climate change: recognising and addressing underlying global inequalities has too often been missing from the conversation about addressing modern slavery in the same way it’s missing in the climate change debate.

Recognising and addressing underlying global inequalities has too often been missing from the conversation about addressing modern slavery in the same way it’s missing in the climate change debate

Prof Alex Balch

It is positive to see that we’re starting to have greater recognition about this, but we still need more for it to get through to public consciousness.

While the focus will now understandably be on the financial commitments that will accompany the fund to address loss and damage, it is important that the operation of this fund will be appropriately informed by different types of evidence. The way this is done will be key to successfully increasing our understanding and bringing political attention on how harms from climate change are connected to structural inequalities.

Recognising loss and damage responds to some of the demands made by those who are arguing for climate justice. This is a perspective that centres on human rights and recognises the ways in which both climate change, and the transition to a more sustainable global economy, must be cognizant of the relationship with global inequalities. The avoidance - until now - of these connections is not accidental and can be traced back to how the global economy is founded on deeply embedded and systematic forms of exploitation and injustice.

Movements to address climate change and modern slavery are at very different places, but need to be connected and can learn from each other. On the face of it, the climate change movement is much further ahead – driven by a strong epistemic consensus on the scale, causes, effects and interventions, and sustained by large, ‘set-piece’ annual conferences that gain the world’s attention.

By contrast, the field of trafficking and modern slavery is much more politically fragile, where understandings of causes, effects and the possibilities for effective interventions are much less certain. However, both share one thing: they tend to avoid the difficult questions about inequalities, on the global stage manifesting themselves by differences in power held by the Global North and the Global South. Attention is always on what the most powerful say the world should do, without the same level of scrutiny on what this actually means in practice, or how their other activities could be making things worse. One of the most important tasks for research, and those who fund it, is therefore to generate and communicate the evidence that demonstrates the costs and harms of inequality.

From the perspective of justice, we should be much more focused on listening to and involving those most affected, who carry the biggest brunt of climate change and who are facing systematic, structural exploitation. The turn towards greater involvement of people with lived experience in both policy and programming on modern slavery may offer some helpful examples when considering how to implement a proposed fund on loss and damage related to climate change.

Ultimately climate justice will not be achieved through political agreement or technological innovation alone. It must be founded on equitable partnerships that hand power to those who are directly impacted, and these are principles that must also be integrated into the way that the new loss and damage fund is conceptualised, implemented and evaluated.

"[Climate change justice] must be founded on equitable partnerships that hand power to those who are directly impacted."

Prof Alex Balch

We are calling for new research to provide evidence on how to mainstream modern slavery into climate change policies. This is because we need much more evidence and attention on the links between modern slavery and climate change, and the role of addressing global inequalities needs to be at the heart of this. It is our task as funders and researchers to bring evidence to the fore that forces the world’s decisionmakers to face up to the structural issues that are central to the problem. This must include those most affected as more than simply participants, or subjects of research, but as collaborators who can lead in the design, production and dissemination of the evidence so badly needed.

Prof Alex Balch is a Director of Research at the Modern Slavery PEC and a professor of politics at the University of Liverpool. You can follow him on Twitter at @alex_balch.

Modern Slavery PEC has issued a call for applications on research on the links between modern slavery and climate change to produce evidence of what works, or could work, in improving policies and practices in this area.