For the love of God, refugees aren’t the reason people are homeless

No, I really don’t think that’s the case, person who has never been homeless or a refugee.

In the week – God, has it seriously only been a week? – since President Donald Trump signed his despicable, potentially illegal Executive Order (EO) kneecapping the refugee resettlement program and temporarily suspending all entry from seven Muslim-majority countries, I’ve seen a lot people sharing memes, videos, and posts similar to the ones above and below.

The faux outrage struggle is real, I guess.

These items express faux outrage that refugees, who are apparently storming into this country, according to the Tweeter-in-Chief, are taking food and shelter away from homeless Americans, particularly veterans.

I know I shouldn’t treat these entreaties as sincere, because they aren’t. Most, if not all, of the people sharing this type of content have never met a refugee. They don’t view refugees as human beings worthy of dignity and respect. They instead caricature them, as our President does, as barbarians at the gates who are somehow uniquely violent and dependent.

Because I’m a glutton for punishment, let’s take these claims at face value. Because, when you do that, my God do they fall to pieces.

During the first seven years of the Obama administration (FY 2009-2015), the United States government spent an average of $1.47 billion per year (page 11) on Migration and Refugee Assistance, once you subtract out the money spent on Overseas Contingency Operations (OCOs); OCO spending is essentially money spent abroad to stem the flow of migrants/refugees at the source by helping to address the push factors driving people to flee their homes.

For FY 2016, the State Department estimated the federal government would spend a total of $1.48 billion, while this number was set at $1.54 billion for FY 2017. We know that, due to this EO slashing the number of refugees the US intends to resettle by more than half from 110,000 to 50,000, this latter number for FY 2017 will necessarily decrease.

But here’s the thing – the US is the wealthiest country in the history of the world. We can walk and chew gum at the same time. Refugees are not preventing the federal government from spending money on homeless veterans.

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has invested billions to tackle the homelessness among veterans since 2009. In FY 2017, for instance, the VA allocated $1.6 billion – more than the government would have spent on refugee resettlement – on programming for homeless veterans. Fortunately, this investment is paying dividends, as the VA estimates that homeless rates among veterans have fallen by at least one-third since 2010. This is excellent news, though much work remains. But if you only decided to care about homeless among our military veterans as a justification to support this EO, refugees aren’t the problem. You are the problem.

The same sentiment holds if you are only raising budgetary concerns now, but never said a word when Republicans forced President Obama to implement sequestration, which cut discretionary funding to the VA. Or if you don’t seem to object to Congress forcing the Department of Defense to spend money on technology and materiel the military doesn’t want. If you said nothing about the $1.4 billion spent on defunct and unnecessary Abrams tanks since FY 2015, refugees aren’t the problem. You’re the problem. The same goes for the $30.7 billion spent since FY 2015 on the F-35, which President Trump scored via tweet about during the transition.

If you supported a candidate for President who grandstanded to avoid a primary debate by claiming he was hosting a grand fundraiser for veterans, then only donated money to veterans groups after the Washington Post called him out on it, refugees aren’t the problem. You are the problem.

Perhaps you supported President Bush’s ill-conceived adventure into Iraq, which destabilized the Middle East and set the stage for the growth of ISIS. This war is one of the major drivers of the current refugee crisis and many of the ongoing challenges our veterans face. If so, refugees are not the problem. You are the problem.

Do you support the President’s intention to repeal the financial reforms enacted under Dodd-Frank? You know, the reforms put in place to help guard against the financial crisis that precipitated the Great Recession? That Great Recession that was built upon a housing bubble that left thousands of people homeless? If so, refugees are not the problem. You are the problem.

But we haven’t really even begun talk about homelessness writ large yet. Homelessness, at least among non-veterans, is not an issue that the federal government addresses. It’s tackled primarily at the local level, where your vote and your input is even more important.

So, do you vote in local elections? Do you vote for candidates who support effective policies to tackle homelessness, chiefly those that seek to actually provide affordable rental units directly to homeless individuals? If not, refugees are not the problem. You are the problem.

Do you support local officials and nonprofit organizations that provide housing, whether temporary or permanent, to homeless individuals regardless of whether or not they have substance abuse issues? Or do you force homeless people to go through treatment for substance abuse and mental health issues before gaining access to housing support? If so, refugees aren’t the problem. You are the problem.

Perhaps you voted for a Republican governor that refused to expand Medicaid in his or her state. Do you support the current effort by Congressional Republicans to turn Medicaid into a voucher program, which would slash benefits and prevent people from taking advantage of it at the times it is most needed, like during recessions when homeless rates increase? What about Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which expanded mental health coverage to millions of Americans? That same ACA which bent the cost curve for healthcare expenses, which are the single largest reason for personal bankruptcies in the US? If so, refugees aren’t the problem. You are the problem.

One of the myriad causes for homelessness in many cities is the rising cost of housing. There are a number of factors that affect housing prices, but none is more important than supply. We can help to mitigate price spikes by building more, denser housing units. Even if these units do not sufficient include low-income units – which they should – they can relieve stress on other properties, opening them up for new residents. But local residents, particularly homeowners who stand to benefit from ever-increasing property values, often fight these types of projects. Others still promote zoning restrictions to ensure that “those people” cannot live in their neighborhoods.

Are you a NIMBYist? Do you support exclusionary zoning policies like minimum lot size, height restrictions, and mandatory parking minimums? If so, refugees aren’t the problem. You are the problem.

It’s a time-tested American tradition to blame the Other for our problems. If we don’t have enough money to solve all of our social issues, it must be the fault of the last person through the door. But that’s bullshit, and you know it’s bullshit.

Refugees are entitled to our help, support, and investment. They earned it with their blood, sweat, and tears. We have an obligation to defend, support, and care for them. That does not mean that we are unable to protect other vulnerable populations, like military veterans and homeless children. It never has, and, hopefully, never will.

So stop pretending otherwise. If the people sharing these stupid memes want to know whom to blame for our homeless population, maybe they should look in the damn mirror for once.

It’s time to include climate change in the immigration debate

hanna lake dried up
hanna lake dried up

A man walks through the desiccated remains of Hanna Lake in Balochistan, which dried up during a decade-long drought in the region (courtesy of Al Jazeera).

Last month, The New York Times released the results of a poll, showing that Hispanics are far more likely to view climate change as a pressing issue that directly affects them. Fifty-four percent of Hispanics rated global warming as a extremely or very important, compared to just 37% of non-Hispanic whites. Moreover, nearly two-thirds (63%) of Hispanics said that the federal government should do a lot or a great deal to tackle climate change.

There are a number of reasons to explain this high level of concern, such as the fact that Hispanic households are far more likely to live in neighborhoods adversely affected by pollution. Minority communities are also more acutely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, such as heat-related mortality.

This increasing awareness about climate change among Hispanics may appear odd to some, at first glance. As Coral Davenport put it, “the findings of the poll run contrary to a longstanding view in politics that the environment is largely a concern of affluent, white liberals.” Timothy Matovina, executive director of the Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame, voiced this conventional wisdom in January, arguing,

Many Spanish-speaking immigrants are worried about surviving from one week to the next. Going to the latest rally on climate change or writing letters to their local chamber of commerce about some environmental issue that sounds to me more like something a middle-class person would do with time on their hands.

Climate change and drought in the American Southwest & Central America

What this argument misses, however, is the myriad ways that climate change is intertwined with other key issues, like immigration. Recently, NASA scientists released a study examining how climate change will affect drought conditions throughout the American Southwest and Central Plains. The study also investigated the impacts on Central America, particularly Mexico. As the map below illustrates, under a business as usual emissions scenario, there is a greater than 80% likelihood that the region will experience a megadrought of at least 30 years between 2050-2099. The historical risk of this type of megadrought is less than 12%.

This study was the first of its kind to compare projected drought trends to the historical record for the past millennium. While droughts of this type did occur during the Medieval Climate Anomaly, a warmer-than-average period lasting from 1100-1300 CE, future droughts will be exceptional. Even if the world takes steps to dramatically curb carbon emissions by mid-century,  climate change will lead to drought conditions that are “unprecedented” in at least the last 1,000 years.

nasa drought projection 2095

The portions of the continental US and Mexico that will be affected by extreme drought this century under a business as usual scenario (courtesy of NASA).

This latest study supplements earlier research showing the looming specter of drought for the region in question. A 2012 Nature Climate Change study by Aiguo Dai, for instance, concluded there would be “severe and widespread droughts in the next 30–90 years” through much of the world, particularly the US and Central America. And a 2011 study from Michael Wehner et al. found that an ensemble analysis “exhibits moderate drought conditions over most of the western United States and severe drought over southern Mexico as the mean climatological state.”

Climate change, drought, and immigration

So what does this research have to do with immigration and Hispanic Americans? Well, we have considerable evidence that droughts are a major driver of migration. As I wrote last January, high temperatures and declining rainfall significantly increase rates of migration in Pakistan. Males living in rural parts of the country, for instance, are 11 times more likely to migrate during periods of extremely high temperatures, while both men and women are more likely to leave their villages under drought conditions.

But the evidence linking climate-induced droughts and migration is not just contained to Pakistan. Because declining rainfall and elevated temperatures combine to lower crop yields in arid and semi-arid areas around the world, drought is likely to be a driver of out-migration in a number of regions. A 2010 study in PNAS found just such a link in Mexico. Declining yields of corn due to drought could increase rates of immigration from Mexico to the US by up to 9.6% through 2080.

Last week, Joe Romm connected the NASA drought study toUS immigration policy. In a post, which is somewhat inartfully titled “If We Dust-Bowlify Mexico And Central America, Immigration Policy Will Have To Change,” Romm writes:

But what are the implications for our poorer neighbors to the south? There will be virtually no part of their countries that are not in near-permanent Dust Bowl or severe drought. And of course their coastal areas (and ours) will be trying to “adapt” to sea level rise of perhaps 3 to 6 feet by 2100 (and likely faster rise after that). Again for all but the wealthiest coastal areas, the primary adaptation strategy will probably be abandonment.

Much of the population of Mexico and Central America — likely over 100 million people (Mexico alone is projected to have a population of 150 million in 2050!) — will be trying to find a place to live that isn’t anywhere near as hot and dry, that has enough fresh water and food to go around. They aren’t going to be looking south.

Romm calls this scenario “a humanitarian and security disaster of almost unimaginable dimensions.” Unfortunately, like all too many commentators before him, Romm makes broad statements about environmentally-induced migration, a topic that is incredibly complex and multi-layered. It’s exactly these types of sweeping generalizations that has led others to claim we would see up to 50 million “climate refugees” by the year 2010. Not quite.

Putting environmentally-induced migration in context

First of all, from a legal and academic sense, there’s no such thing as a climate refugee. But beyond that, it’s not helpful to reduce an issue as complex as migration to a string of simplified absolutes. Arguing that drought conditions will inevitably force people to abandon their villages, en masse, ignores a large collection of evidence to the contrary and effectively robs these people of their agency. We need to do better than that as a community of people who purport to care about the interests of individuals on the front lines of climate change.

Romm’s claim that abandonment will be the primary adaptation strategy has little support. Migration carries considerable costs and risks for individuals, so it is almost never the first choice people pursue. Environmental stress is one of many considerations that people have when deciding to migrate, but it is important to remember that this decision includes a number of social, economic, and political factors.

When examining migration patterns, we need to consider both the push and pull factors involved. Drought can be a major push factor that drives people from their homes, but there generally needs to be pull factors on the other end to attract people to destination communities. We have plenty of evidence of this from Mexico, where multiple studies from migration scholars at the University of Colorado have found that emigration to the US largely occurs among households that have previous experience with migration and/or have access to established migration networks. While declining rainfall does appear to drive households to migrate from Mexico to the US (especially for households living in dry portions of Mexico and during periods of extreme drought), the existence of social networks for potential migrants is “dominating” these flows. Whether or not households choose to migrate during dry spells is largely predicated on this factor.

None of this is to suggest that, as large portions of the Southwest and Central America enter persistent drought conditions, the number of people entering the US across the southern border (with or without legal approval) won’t increase. It almost certainly will. We have already seen spikes in migration from countries such as Guatemala, which is currently enduring an historic drought.

But, if we are proactive, things need not devolve into the worst case scenario Romm laid out. The US and our neighbors need to work together to both enhance the adaptive capacity of people living in Central America, so they can be better prepared to weather a changing climate in situ and to reform immigration policies to facilitate the movement of people throughout the region.

Migration has always been a vital adaptation in the face of external stress, and we should consider it through that lens. It is likely time for the international community to begin including migration and displacement in the broader discussion about climate change policy. Perhaps it can be couched under the national adaptation plans or the work program on loss and damage. But we need to be very careful not to let migration get subsumed within climate change. As I’ve noted, there could be significant unintended consequences of creating a special protected class for climate migrants. What about internally displaced persons who cannot access international assistance? What about the 40-80 million people who have been displaced by large dam projects worldwide?

We must also be careful about hyping waves of climate refugees. There is already enough backlash against immigrants worldwide, and pushing such doomsday scenarios may just serve to heighten that opposition. Rather than building figurative and literal barriers to immigration, we need to begin upgrading our domestic and foreign policy to support and protect potential migrants of all stripes. In a greenhouse world, we can no longer afford to consider immigration policy in a vacuum.

Extreme heat increases migration from rural areas

hanna lake dried up
hanna lake dried up

A man walks through the desiccated remains of Hanna Lake in Balochistan, which dried up during a decade-long drought in the region (courtesy of Al Jazeera).

The link between extreme weather and migration remains ambiguous, despite the hype surrounding so-called climate refugees, but new research appears to bolster the connection.

A new study published this week in Nature Climate Change (paywall) explores the effects of different disasters on human migration patterns in rural Pakistan. In light of the severe floods that have affected Pakistan in recent years, particularly the historic 2010 floods that affected 20 million people, the authors focused on the impact that extreme rainfall and temperatures have on patterns of migration in the country. The study examines the relationship over a 21-year period (1991-2012), relying on data from three longitudinal surveys.

The authors analyze several key weather variables, including rainfall during the monsoon season, average temperatures during the Rabi (winter wheat) season, flood intensity, and a 12-month moisture index measurement.

The various measures of rainfall have no significant effect on the mobility of men or women, either within or outside of the villages surveyed. In fact, the results suggest that periods of high rainfall actually decrease out-migration within the villages, perhaps due to the fact that farm and non-farm incomes increase significantly during these periods.

These results correspond with previous studies examining the relationship between rainfall and migration. Afifi and Warner examined the influence of 13 different forms of environmental degradation on patterns of international migration. They found that only one of the 13 – flooding – failed to increase international migration flows. In addition, Raleigh, Jordan, and Salehyan (PDF) concluded in 2008 that Bangladeshis affected by flooding migrated just two miles from their homes, on average, and that the vast majority of those displaced returned home shortly after the flood waters receded.

In contrast to flooding, this study did find a robust relationship between extreme heat and out migration flows. The authors note that males in rural Pakistan are 11 times more likely to leave their villages when exposed to extremely high temperatures. These results hold for both land-owners and non-land owners, as well as asset-rich and asset-poor Pakistanis. This outcome likely stems from the fact that extreme heat decreases both farm and non-farm incomes by 36% and 16%, respectively.

The authors also find that both men and women appear far more likely to migrate during periods of both extreme high temperatures and low rainfall. This result indicates that out migration flows are likely to spike during extreme droughts.

While droughts often appear to develop due largely to below-average rainfall, they actually originate through a much more subtle interaction of precipitation and temperature. Less rainfall tends to lower soil moisture levels, which, in turn, increases heat transfer from the soil to the air and elevates surface albedo. These effects drive up temperature further, often creating a positive feedback cycle by which lower rainfall and higher temperatures work together to drive prolonged droughts.

The results of the study have important implications for governments, donor organizations, and NGOs operating in a greenhouse world. As global temperatures continue to rise, we already know that the likelihood of extreme heatwaves will spike dramatically. This outcome will likely increase rural out-migration in the developing world. Moreover, the authors suggest that their work will require donors and aid agencies to reconsider how they respond to and plan for disasters in the future.

Existing flood relief programs may potentially crowd out private coping mechanisms such as migration, particularly for the poor and risk-averse living in flood-prone areas. Our results also show the important role of heat stress — a climate shock which has attracted relatively less relief — in lowering farm and non-farm income and spurring migration. Sustainable development will require policies that enhance adaptation to weather-related risks for farmers and for enterprises tied to the rural economy. Shifting relief towards investments in heat-resistant varieties, producing and disseminating better weather forecasting data and weather insurance, and policies that encourage welfare-enhancing migratory responses might improve individual abilities to adapt to an array of weather-related risks.

It’s often more rational for people in disaster-prone areas not to move

Workers rebuild the boardwalk in Bayhead, New Jersey. The boardwalk was badly damaged by Superstorm Sandy (courtesy of The Atlantic Cities).

Workers rebuild the boardwalk in Bay Head, New Jersey. The boardwalk was badly damaged by Superstorm Sandy (courtesy of The Atlantic Cities).

Over at The Atlantic Cities, Prof. Harvey Moltoch has a good piece titled “Why Residents of Disaster-Prone Areas Don’t Move.” In it, he discusses some of the economic and emotional reasons why people choose to stay in vulnerable areas, even after suffering the devastating effects of disasters like Superstorm Sandy.

Consider, for example, that people are consumers of space in ways that go beyond having houses, apartments, back-yard gardens, and a place for the RV. They have friends, family and obligations nearby. Location, especially residential location, is the node around which people manage life with routines, like having specific shopping habits close to home. Even when they can be financially “made whole” in an offer to retreat, residents may not want the deal. Hence there are “hold-outs” who resist even robust financial inducements. Private developers trying to assemble large parcels know this all too well: people often want to remain for reasons that money can’t overcome.

Given the recent string of disasters that have occurred in the last few weeks – including earthquakes in Pakistan and the Philippines and massive tropical storms in China, India, and Japan – it is logical that people would want to understand the motives of those who choose to remain in harm’s way, despite the inherent risks; this is particularly true, given that each of these areas has been hit by similar destructive disasters in the past.

While Prof. Moltoch’s post provides valuable insight into this issue, it ignores a lot of other key factors that play into the decision. Moreover, it is largely applicable only to the developed world. What may seem economically rational to a person living in the Korail slum of Dhaka does not necessarily comport to Western standards, and vice versa.

In many areas, government regulations and economic structures may create incentives for individuals and businesses to build in these high risk areas. Both the presence of certain initiatives – like the heavily indebted federal flood insurance program – and the absence of others – such as a requirement to incorporate climate change projections into infrastructure planning – can incentivize people to build in areas where, if externalities were properly accounted for, it would not make economic sense for development.

One can understand the reticence of taxpayers to effectively subsidize such unsustainable development projects. Accordingly, it’s not surprising to see people make comments like “we ALL pay for their stupidity to remain in place,” which one person said in response to Prof. Moltoch’s piece. Yet, this mindset ignores the fact that, for many people (particularly in the developing world), staying in disaster-prone areas is actually the rational decision.

Given the threats posed by climate change, particularly that of sea level rise for low-lying areas, it’s common to hear about the need to resettle large populations of people from, say, Kiribati or Bangladesh. Yet, as we frequently see with resettlement programs related to large-scale development projects, people often find themselves worse off than before. The Hirakud dam, India’s first mega-dam, was completed more than 60 years ago; despite this fact, at least 10,000 people affected by the project still have not been rehabilitated fully.

While moving people from disaster-prone areas may minimize their physical vulnerability, it frequently maximizes their social vulnerability and sense of dislocation (PDF). Following major droughts in the 1980s, for instance, the Ethiopian government launched a large-scale, forced resettlement program of famine-affected households. The effort proved to be a catastrophe, and it soon turned into a state-sponsored disaster of its own.

Two vital forms of capital upon which people can draw to enhance their resilience to disasters are a familiarity with the climate/environment and social networks. Forced relocation can upset each of these in significant ways. Following massive flooding on the Zambeze and Limpopo Rivers in 2001 and 2007, the Mozambican government resettled a large number of people (PDF) from the affected flood plains. Unfortunately, these flood-safe regions suffer from recurrent drought; accordingly, many of the people who were resettled actually returned to the flood-prone areas after the disaster ended.

Moreover, forced relocation frequently breaks social bonds and interferes with various forms of social capital, leaving individuals highly vulnerable and prone to exploitation. After Hurricane Katrina, the rate of rape among women living in FEMA trailer camps was 53.6 times higher (PDF) than the rate before the storm. There is also ample evidence that Cambodian and Vietnamese families forced to migrate from their homes have sold their daughters into the sex trade (PDF) in order to generate income.

Lastly, particularly in urban areas, it is essential for poor households to have ready access to economic opportunities. Yet, the majority of formal land that the urban poor can afford is located within the peri-urban fringe, far from the urban core. Accordingly, most poor households will opt to live in marginal areas closer to the city center in order to have easier access to the economic resources upon which their livelihoods depend. This create situations in which slums develop in highly vulnerable, disaster-prone areas, such as the Annawadi slum of Mumbai that Katerine Boo chronicles in Beyond the Beautiful Forevers.

Two young Indian boys play with items they found in a garbage pile, while their mother sorts through the waste. In India, people who sort and sell trash for a living - an incredibly important job in a country with poor solid waste management - are overwhelmingly from low castes and are commonly known as "ragpickers" (courtesy of Don't Waste People).

Two young Indian boys play with items they found in a garbage pile, while their mother sorts through the waste. In India, people who sort and sell trash for a living – an incredibly important job in a country with poor solid waste management – are overwhelmingly from low castes and are commonly known as “ragpickers” (courtesy of Don’t Waste People).

So the next time that you want to criticize someone for living in the low-lying areas of New Orleans or in Orissa state in India, remember two things:


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.

Stop using the term environmental refugee

Grist had an article last week discussing the new book Overheated: The Human Cost of Climate Change, from UC Berkeley’s Anthony Guzman. In the book, Guzman discusses the potential socio-political consequences of 2°C warming, the threshold that the international community has set as the limit for global warming. Of course, recent research and our current emissions trajectory has us on pace to blow right past that number, but that’s for another post.

Anyways, the description of the article intrigued me, so I clicked on the link. In the post, Michael C. Osbourne from Grist describes his reading of the book:

Some of the scarier parts of the book are about the overabundance of water that’s coming our way: 2 degrees warming probably equates to about a one-meter rise in sea level this century. That’s enough to displace hundreds of thousands to millions of people in low-lying nations, and, as of now, there is no plan to deal with environmental refugees.

Cover of Andrew Guzman's new book, Overheated: The Human Cost of Climate Change.

Cover of Andrew Guzman’s new book, Overheated: The Human Cost of Climate Change.


And that’s where he lost me. I know that the term “environmental refugee” and its sister term, “climate refugee” have become buzzwords for environmental activists, particularly when we discuss the dire implications of climate change. In addition, they’re far from new. Essam El-Hinnawi of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) coined the term “environmental refugee” in 1985. A number of researchers and activists have bandied the term about to serve their own purposes over the years. Different reports offer a variety of wildly speculative projections on the potential number of people who will be displaced by climate change; they range from 162 million to 1 billion people displaced by 2050.

To put it succinctly, these estimates are, largely, absurd doomsday predictions that ignore the actual research on environmental migration issues. I explore the shortcomings of such projections in my previous research on climate change and national security, so I won’t go relitigate the issues here. Instead, I want to point out the inaccuracy of the term environmental refugee itself.

The word refugee has an internationally recognized legal definition, which emerged from the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugeesthe document that established the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. According to this refugee convention, a refugee is a person who:

owing to wellfounded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former
habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.

People displaced by climatic disasters do not meet this definition. Now, if Guzman had argue that disasters and climate change are politically constructed phenomena and that climate change represents the single greatest environmental injustice ever enacted on the developing world by the developed world, I would be a vocal supporter. I steadfastly hold these beliefs. But that’s not the argument here.

Issues surrounding migration and displacement over environmental issues are highly complex and context-specific. Claiming that an extreme weather event will inevitably force a poor Bangladeshi to migrate to northeastern India belies evidence to the contrary and, more importantly, robs this hypothetical individual of his or her personal agency. And calling people who do flee in the face of environmental stresses a refugee strips the term of its incredibly important political and legal weight.

All of this is not to say that people are not forcibly displaced by environmental stress and/or extreme weather events. The work of the Environmental Change and Forced Migration (EACH-FOR) project demonstrates that environmentally induced migration and displacement are exceedingly pervasive throughout the Global South. According to the IFRC, roughly 5,000 new people become environmentally displaced every day. A new report from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre suggests that 32.4 million people were displaced by disaster events in 2012, and some 98% of this displacement was the result of climatic disasters.

The evidence is quite robust that environmental catastrophes displace and/or force millions of people to migrate from their homes every year. So say that. Environmentally induced migration and environmental displacement are perfectly accurate, forceful terms. I know that refugee carries a certain set of connotations and a clear mandate for action, but climate hawks cannot just claim it for their own ends. Just as people need to be aware that their actions have consequences for the environment and the habitability of our planet, we need to learn that our words have meaning and consequences.