We are all entering uncharted waters as the effects of climate change begin to create categories of migrants that have no precedent: migrants rendered stateless after their island nations disappear; migrants constituting a roaming “environmental refugee” population equivalent to the population of Brazil; migrants fleeing climate-intensified wars and violence like that in Syria and Central America.
In a matter of days, global leaders will enter the most delicate and potentially catastrophic discussions about civilization and migration in history. The UN COP21 conference on climate in Paris could decide the fate of people being displaced by climate change – the number of which has been forecasted to be as many as 1 billion people, with 200 million (PDF) being the most widely cited figure.
Deleting just a over a dozen words will have many unfortunate consequences, including letting the countries of the global North off the hook.
In September, New Zealand rejected Ioane Teitiota’s quest to become the world’s first officially recognized climate-change refugee, and deported him back to the island nation of Kiribati instead. Kiribati is so vulnerable to sea-level rise that its government recently purchased land in Fiji so that it would have a place to relocate its citizens when the islands are eventually submerged, a fate that now seems inevitable.
Is this how the West will deal with climate-change refugees going forward? COP21 should be addressing this very question yet, incredibly, the mention of the term migrants may be cut from the final agreement coming out of the critical global gathering. In October, a revised draft of the conference agreement showed proposed deletions of any mention of migrants from the final conference agreement.
Deleting just a over a dozen words will have many unfortunate consequences, including letting the countries of the global North off the hook for continuing with their current strategy. Instead of actually facing the crisis, the global North will just be policing migrants.
Before the Paris attack, the COP21 host country’s president, François Hollande, warned in a press conference in September that, without substantive climate action, “We won’t have hundreds of thousands of refugees in the next 20 or 30 years, but millions.” He also reminded the countries of the global North to fulfill their commitment, made during the 2009 Copenhagen (COP15) talks, to increase aid to the poorest, most climate-vulnerable countries to $100bn a year by 2020.
This xenophobic talk has devastating effects on migrants: painting them as threats, rather than people fleeing threats from civil war, the rising ocean or, as is increasingly the case, violence and conflict that scientists say has been worsened by the effects of climate change.
That was before France’s 9-11. Since then, serious talk about serious issues is being replaced by the dangerous and outmoded xenophobic talk that has been making a worldwide comeback in the wake of the Paris attacks. National Front party leader Marine Le Pen’s calls to “expel” all the “illegal migrants who have nothing to do here” were echoed throughout the United States, where all Republican Presidential candidates sounded immigration alarms like those of Marco Rubio who, in the same plan in which he called the attacks on Paris part of a larger “clash of civilizations,” also called for the United States to immediately “Halt new admissions of refugees from Syria.”
This has devastating effects on migrants: painting them as threats, rather than people fleeing threats from civil war, the rising ocean or, as is increasingly the case, violence and conflict that scientists say has been worsened by the effects of climate change. This shift now provides Northern countries another way to mask their unwillingness to deal with the migration crisis that their production and consumption habits have played a huge role in creating (i.e. 1 person in the United States’s carbon footprint is equivalent to that of 250 Ethiopians). Yet it is likely that “the burden of providing for climate migrants will be borne by the poorest countries—those least responsible for emissions of greenhouse gases,” according to the International Organization for Migration (PDF).
The COP21 talks should take a reality-based approach, beginning with actually mentioning the word migrants in the agreement that comes out of the talks, as earlier drafts did. Before the titanic waves of coming displacement, members should also reinstate the idea that Australia (the nation whose outspokenness against dealing with climate migration has it playing the role of Donald Trump on the world migration stage) worked to have stricken from the plan: establishing a “climate change displacement coordination facility” to help with both emergency relief and planned relocations.
Also being discussed (at least by the most climate-vulnerable countries) are proposals to include language that opens the door to providing legal protection to climate refugees. These protections aren’t simply a moral imperative; they represent the only civilized approach to climate migration.
Unless leaders deal responsibly with the issue of migration at the Paris climate talks, they will unleash a refugee crisis that will exponentially multiply, and worsen, the most massive uprooting of humanity ever. In the process, Paris, the city of lights, may herald in a new dark age for migrants worldwide – all because we decided to pursue a clash of civilizations instead of fighting our common enemy: carbon emissions.
This piece, commissioned by Creative Time Reports, has also been published in The Guardian.