“We live in constant fear of the adverse impacts of climate change. For a coral atoll nation, sea level rise and more severe weather events loom as a growing threat to our entire population. The threat is real and serious, and is of no difference to a slow and insidious form of terrorism against us.”—Prime Minister of Tuvalu Saufatu Sapo’aga at the United Nations
In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, world leaders are closing their borders to refugees and cracking down on civil society participation in the upcoming climate negotiations. Over the past 15 years, the War on Terror has allowed for increased state powers while curbing fundamental rights, especially of racialized bodies marked as threats. Meanwhile, violence against the majority of humanity – including the devastation caused by climate change in places like Tuvalu – continues on with international impunity.
Tuvalu is one of dozens of low-lying Pacific Islands threatened with total submersion as catastrophic warming causes ocean levels to rise drastically. Over one-fifth of Tuvaluans have already been forced to flee and the government of Tuvalu has been urging the UN to heed the impending disaster in Tuvalu. Despite having the world’s highest emission per capita, Tuvalu’s neighbor, Australia, has so far refused to accept Tuvaluans as climate refugees.
It is evident that Australia and other Western governments’ non-response to climate change is reproduced in their denial of the humanity of those who are a product of our unequal world; millions of people are treated as expendable as the land, air and water that elites and their corporate friends are digging up and polluting.
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Climate Refugees at COP21 Climate Talks
Two years ago, the strongest storm ever recorded at landfall hit the Philippines. Typhoon Haiyan left 6,000 people dead and 4 million people were forced from their homes. This month a coalition of survivors released an anniversary statement to the world:
“On the second anniversary of Yolanda, lighted candles may no longer be enough. We must organize an escalated action strengthening our broad networks to pressure our own inept governments and the world’s top 200 corporate giants amassing wealth from carbon pollution and social exploitation … Now is the time to end the climate crisis. Let the world know – our survival is non-negotiable.”
According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, an average of 26.4 million people per year have been displaced from their homes due to environmental disasters. This is the equivalent of one person displaced every second, and the likelihood of being displaced by a climate disaster is 60 percent higher today than it was four decades ago.
Even though international agencies and politicians routinely declare that climate and migration are two of the greatest crises on the planet today, a proposal to support climate refugees has been dropped from the UN COP21 climate talks in Paris. One of the key recommendations from the Advisory Group on Climate Change and Human Mobility is to fund adaptation strategies that support communities to remain, as well as strategies to safely migrate through a climate change displacement coordination facility. Proposed by low-lying countries in the Global South, the recommendation is opposed by Western countries, especially Australia, and has now been entirely scrapped from the latest draft agreement.
It lays bare that to those in power the survival of brown and black bodies is, in fact, negotiable. Furthermore, carbon markets continue to be one of the primary solutions proposed by government and corporate elites, even though they open up impoverished communities to land grabs and further displacement by polluters.
Displacement as Environmental Violence
Climate refugees are not alone in bearing the impacts of environmental degradation. Refugees and migrants fleeing war, political violence and economic instability often tell the stories of livelihoods devastated by changing weather patterns or industrial development projects that permanently alter local landscapes. The staggering scale of the Syrian refugee crisis, for example, is compounded by an eight-year drought resulting in 75 percent of farmers suffering total crop failure and over 1.5 million people being forced into urban areas.
In fact, much of the political and imperialist violence that has caused the world’s largest mass displacements in Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq can be traced back to the world’s largest climate crime of the tar sands.
Disproportionately impacting downstream Indigenous communities such as the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, Beaver Lake Cree Nation and Lubicon Cree Nation at the source, over half of Alberta’s tar sands go to the US whose Department of Defense is the world’s leading single buyer and consumer of oil. Indeed, the US Energy Policy Act of 2005 explicitly designates tar sands production to serve the fuel needs of the US military. As author Naomi Klein explains it, “As Baghdad burns, destabilizing the entire region and sending oil prices soaring, Calgary booms.” This is precisely why a local and global anti-colonial orientation needs to be central to climate justice movements.
The level of cognitive dissonance you need to believe refugees are the big threat in a world of climate change, inequality, debt, etc.
— ❤️ (@umairh) November 22, 2015
In the East African country of Tanzania, mining for gold accounts for approximately 40 percent of the country’s exports. Just one mine, the North Mara gold mine owned by Canadian mining giant Barrick Gold, has displaced 10,000 families since 1997. Within one year, the Legal and Human Rights Center documented 19 murders of villagers opposing the mine by police and security forces. In another northern part of Tanzania, the Geita Gold Mine displaced 250 people from one village – almost all farming families who can no longer subsist on the land and have been living in a makeshift refugee camp for the past eight years. Industrial development such as mining, dams and power plants have severe consequences for the environment, as well as the human rights of those displaced due to loss of their lands and livelihoods. Researchers estimate that around the world 15 million people each year are forced to leave their homes due to industrial development projects, and that mining accounts for 10.3 percent of all development-induced displacements.
Furthermore, in a world of fortified borders, seeking refuge is underwritten by violence on the land. The militarization of the US-Mexico border wall, for example, has created a 650-mile scar on the land as well as at least 5,000 migrant deaths in the past two decades. In 2005, a provision in the Real ID Act gave the Secretary of Homeland Security unprecedented power to waive 36 laws that protected endangered species, farmland, rivers and sensitive ecosystems. Meanwhile, prisons and immigration detention centers are massive environmental and health hazards for those disproportionately poor black and brown bodies warehoused behind bars and drinking water tainted with arsenic, sleeping in sewage, and breathing air from dangerously close power plants and landfills.
Freedom to Move, Stay and Return
Climate change is a product of our political, social and economic system – one that places all that is sacred onto the market for pillage and profit, a hierarchal order that values some people as all of humanity while others are cast outside of humanity and made to disappear in the seas, on the streets and behind cages. This is precisely why displaced peoples must be central to climate movements.
As author McKenzie Wark reminds us, “Those who seek refuge, who are rarely accorded a voice, are nevertheless the bodies that confront the injustice of the world.”