More on the environmental/climate refugee question

My last post on environmental refugees generated a bit of conversation and discussion on Twitter, and it garnered some push back from other activists (as I had hoped). Additionally, I unknowingly posted it at an opportune time for this discussion, as The Guardian has just launched its excellent series on the effects of climate change on communities in Alaska.

The series begins with a discussion of the threat posed to Newtok, as the river that surrounds it on all sides continually erodes the land upon which the town is built at a startling pace. As the author notes:

A federal government report found more than 180 other native Alaskan villages – or 86% of all native communities – were at risk because of climate change. In the case of Newtok, those effects were potentially life threatening.

Evidence of the significant, ongoing land erosion that threatens the town of Newtok, Alaska (courtesy of The Guardian).

Evidence of the significant, ongoing land erosion that threatens the town of Newtok, Alaska (courtesy of The Guardian).

Interestingly, though perhaps unsurprisingly, The Guardian opted to title this series “America’s Climate Refugees.” Now, before I get into my argument, let me make a few disclaimers. I find the plight of people living in such Arctic communities to be horrific, and I find the unwillingness or inability of the United States government to address the threats to their livelihoods, culture, and personal security to be shameful. As I noted in my last post, I believe climate change represents the single largest environmental injustice ever enacted upon vulnerable people in history. The fact that the physical and cultural survival of peoples is threatened by anthropogenic changes to our atmosphere is, without question, a fundamental human rights issue. I fully support the effort by the Inuit Circumpolar Council to push for redress (PDF) over climate change to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, despite (and perhaps more so because of) the Commission’s refusal of their petition.

That said, I find it odd that The Guardian would seek to couch a discussion over climate refugees in this particular case study. It’s a tragic story that absolutely demands action. But it’s not a case of climate refugees by a long shot. In order to be a refugee, an individual needs to cross an international border and fear reprisal from his/her host government or another group should s/he return. The Alaskan communities in question have not, to my knowledge, migrated into Canada from fear of the US government or fellow Alaskans. On the contrary, they have received (woefully inadequate) technical and financial support from the US government, particularly the Army Corps of Engineers, to relocate their village.

As the article notes, Newtok residents developed a plan to move their village approximately nine miles away to higher ground. This plan lines up closely with evidence from other groups displaced by environmental events and/or disasters. As I discuss in my paper on climate change and national security:

Environmental migration follows a distinct pattern: it is largely internal, temporary, and nearby. Migrants moved an average of two miles in response to flooding in Bangladesh, and the vast majority returned shortly after the disaster had dissipated.

Now, that is not to say that all migrants relocated to nearby communities or returned to their homes. Approximately 10-25% of migrants permanently relocated, most of whom moved into Dhaka. Moreover, research does suggest (PDF) that nearly all types of environmental disasters create international migration flows. But that’s not what is occurring in this Alaska case. The suffering of innocent Alaskan communities at the hands of our fossil fuel-based economic is no less important than that of people living on small island states in the Pacific Ocean. But that does not mean that they are “climate refugees.”

One of the more than 2,000 islands in the Maldives that face inundation from projected sea level rise (courtesy of the Intellectualist).

One of the more than 2,000 islands in the Maldives that face inundation from projected sea level rise (courtesy of the Intellectualist).

Another one of the threads running through the push back I got on Twitter dealt with the fact that people displaced by environmental and climatic changes defy the current definition of refugees, IDPs, etc. I would generally agree with that argument, and I think most international migration scholars (of which I am not one) think that the current paradigm needs to change to better reflect current realities.

But we also need to consider the moral issues involved in creating a special protected class in international law for people displaced by climate change. The single largest source of displacement globally is violence/conflict. The IFRC estimates that 10.4 million refugees and 26.4 million IDPs fled violence/conflict in 2011, adding to the 43 million total who have left their homes from these threats over the years. If we provide a special, internationally recognized status for people forcibly displaced by climate change, what does that mean for the millions already displaced by violent conflict? Is an IDP in Sudan, who lives under the constant threat of violence, somehow less worthy of protection and support than someone displaced by groundwater salination in the Maldives?

And what of the 43 million people who have been forcibly displaced and relocated by large-scale development projects, including big dams and mines, worldwide? The vast majority of these people have not received adequate relocation and livelihoods support, and they are highly vulnerable to the looming impacts of climate change. Should they only be eligible for special protection after they have been displaced again by sea level rise?

The plight of marginalized communities facing the effects of conflict, disasters, and climate change is what keeps me up at night. It’s what I devoted my entire graduate school education and my Master’s thesis to. Marginalized people displaced by climate change, whether in the developing or developed world, are absolutely entitled to financial and, I would argue, legal retribution. But we need to be mindful about the potential consequences of our proposals to address these issues. It has taken more than 60 years to get our addled, ineffective international refugee system to where it is today. We need to be very careful about throwing out the baby with the rising bathwater.

Recent conference presentations

UPDATE: April 22 at 1:51pm

As I mention below in the original post, the organizers of the JIS & GSC Spring Research Symposium on Human Security and Development made an audio recording of the presentations. Here is the audio from my presentation:

Additionally, if you’d like to hear the other excellent research presented at the conference, you can visit the Journal of International Service‘s YouTube page.

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As noted in a previous post, I recently delivered presentations at two research conferences for graduate students in the Washington, DC area.

Last Friday, 3/22, I delivered the findings from my paper, Breaking the Conflict Trap: On the Factors Contributing to Civil War Recurrenceto the 2nd annual Graduate Student Research Conference at George Mason’s School of Public Policy. A copy of my presentation is available below:


Last evening, I presented the preliminary findings from my Masters thesis research at the Journal of International Service & Graduate Student Conference’s Spring Research Symposium, which focused on human security & development. My presentation, titled “Disasters as Conflict Triggers: A New Framework for Analysis in Conflict-Affected & Post-Conflict States,” focused on my work analyzing the linkages between disasters and conflict in fragile settings. It includes a case study of conflict dynamics of the international response to the 2005 Kashmir Earthquake in Pakistan. A copy of my presentation is below. I will also upload the audio from the presentation as soon as it is available.


Reshaping America’s climate and food aid policies to tackle instability

UPDATE (4/3/13 at 1:08pm): The New York Times ran a piece this morning reporting that the Obama administration has proposed changing the US food aid system to purchase crops from local producers, as I suggested below. While this change faces major opposition from big agribusiness and shipping interests, it would be a major feather in the cap for the President, and I commend his effort.

I submitted the following to the Center for International Policy Student National Security-Foreign Policy Solutions Contest:

Recently, the Center for American Program released a report that traced the connection between climate change and the Arab Spring. It illustrated how a volatile mix of extreme weather, reduced food production, and food price spikes contributed to the instability that ripped through the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) in 2011. Following a rash of extreme weather events, including severe drought and wildfires in Russia & Ukraine – which scientists have connected to climate change – the price of wheat jumped from just $4 per bushel in July 2010 to nearly $9 by February 2011. For the average Egyptian family, which spends 40% of its income on food, watching the price of food stuffs increase by up to ten-fold was too much to bear. Egyptians marched through the streets carrying loaves of bread and demanding the end of the Mubarak regime.

Changes in the FAO World Food Price Index and major instability events globally from 2008-2012 (courtesy of American Security Project).

Changes in the FAO World Food Price Index and major instability events globally from 2008-2012 (courtesy of American Security Project).

The Arab Spring is far from the only time that food price spikes have driven instability and revolt, however. Food riots destabilized Haiti in 2008, while the Tortilla Crisis rocked Mexico in 2007. The violent response by Liberia’s Tolbert regime to rice riots in1979 contributed to Samuel Doe’s coup the following year.

Given this clear link between food shocks and domestic instability, it will be vital to address food security concerns in a greenhouse world. IFPRI projects that food prices will rise across the board through 2050, with increases up to 100.7% for maize. Research suggests that climate change could significantly reduce crop yields  in Sub-Saharan Africa by 22%. The US is suffering from an historic drought, which affected 80% of farmland and reduced grain yields by 8%. Globally, grain consumption has exceeded production in 8 of the last 13 years. This trend is likely to worsen in the future, particularly as China increases its grain imports; research suggests Chinese grain yields could decrease by 37% in the coming decades.

Projected changes to cereal productivity, due to climate change, through 2080 (courtesy of UNEP/GRID Arendal).

Projected changes to cereal productivity, due to climate change, through 2080 (courtesy of UNEP/GRID Arendal).

In his inaugural address, President Obama said he “will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.” To live up to this statement, the President should use his second term to tackle the climate-food insecurity nexus by leading on international climate negotiations and reforming US food policy.

First, the President and Secretary of State John Kerry must work proactively with the leaders of developed countries, India, and China to meet their commitment to craft a legally-binding international climate treaty by 2015. Secondly, the President must coordinate with our OECD partners to fulfill their 2009 pledge to provide $100 billion per year to tackle climate change in the developing world. A portion of these funds should finance climate-resilient agriculture for smallholder farmers. This investment should promote proven agricultural tactics, including agroforestry and regional seed banks.

Thirdly, the President should begin a conversation to change the face of US farm policy. Currently, inefficient farm subsidies in the US and the European Union encourage wasteful and otherwise noncompetitive practices. Western governments spend $2.50 per day in subsidies on each head of cattle, compared to just $0.90 per day for children in the developing world. Additionally, Western farm subsidies allow farmers to produce commodity crops at below-market prices; in turn, Western governments dump this surplus crop on the world market, undercutting farmers in the developing world. President Obama should use the negotiations with the EU over the proposed trans-Atlantic free trade zone to reform these harmful subsidies.

Pakistani soldiers unload food aid from a US Navy helicopter during the 2010 Pakistan Floods relief effort (photo courtesy of  Paula Bronstein/Getty Images).

Pakistani soldiers unload food aid from a US Navy helicopter during the 2010 Pakistan Floods relief effort (photo courtesy of Paula Bronstein/Getty Images).

Lastly, President Obama should use his executive power to reform the way the federal government distributes food aid.  According to Oxfam, the current US food aid system loses at least $500 million annually from waste and inefficiency. Reforming this system could enable food aid to reach an additional 17 million food insecure people. Currently, federal law requires that the US government purchase 75% of its food aid domestically and ship it to recipients. Transportation costs eat 65% of the total budget. Pilot programs demonstrate that purchasing food from local producers can reduce costs by 54% and cut delivery time by 62%. These common-sense reforms would save lives, taxpayer money, and reduce food waste in a time of worsening food insecurity.

The agenda I have laid out is broad and complex; however, the threat that climate change and food security pose to the developing world is as well. If President Obama moves on these items, he will go a long way towards tackling the climate crisis.

Upcoming conference presentations

I will be presenting at two upcoming conferences for DC-area graduate students later this month.

March 22, I will present my paper, Breaking the Conflict Trap: On the Factors Contributing to Civil War Recurrence, at the 2nd annual Graduate Student Research Conference at George Mason University.

Map of the affected areas & epicenter of the 2005 Kashmir Earthquake. Courtesy of the BBC.

Map of the affected areas & epicenter of the 2005 Kashmir Earthquake. Courtesy of the BBC.

The following Tuesday, March 26, I will present initial details from my current research project, Where DDR Meets DRR, at the Graduate Research Symposium, sponsored by the Journal of International Service and the AU SIS Graduate Student Council.

My presentation will focus the theoretical framework that I have developed, which explains a set of potential pathways linking disasters to conflict in conflict-affected states. Additionally, I will present preliminary evidence of the conflict dynamics of the international response effort to the 2005 Pakistan Earthquake. This work will form the basis of the capstone research for my Master’s program.

I will upload the Powerpoints for each presentation to this site after I have completed them.