Are we ready to adapt to the coming age of climate refugees?

For CommonSpace’s week of special coverage on refugees and asylum seekers, editor Ben Wray looks at whether the West is equipped to deal with the coming climate refugee crisis, which will dwarf any refugee crisis preceding it

IN CHENNAI, India’s sixth largest city, 4.6 million people are on the verge of catastrophe.

After long and repeated heatwaves, the city’s water supply has all but run dry. Public services, hotels and restaurants have been shut down. There has been reports of fighting breaking out in Chennai’s slums – in which 820,000 people live - over what’s left of water access, with the private water tanks acquired by Chennai’s middle class totally out of reach for most residents. One local official told the BBC last week that “only rain can save Chennai from this situation”.

Chennai is likely to be just a taster of what is to come in India if, as expected, climate change rapidly increases the instances of extreme heat. Around 600 million people currently face high to extreme water stress. By 2030, one think-tank found, “the country's water demand is projected to be twice the available supply, implying severe water scarcity for hundreds of millions of people”.

Ultimately, the fragility of India’s relationship to our most essential resource will - if there is no other alternative - force millions of people to move in search of water. India is the world’s second most populous country, but it is just one country – many others will be at least equally exposed. When expanded to the global scale, the potential for climate refugees is almost too scary to contemplate. One estimate puts the figure for climate refugees by 2050 at one billion. The most widely cited estimate is a 2015 study, which puts the figure at 200 million.

Whichever figure one picks, it’s a number that our current global governmental system is both unable and unwilling to handle. The current refugee crisis, partly driven by climate change, is the worst since the second world war - that’s 68.5 million people forcibly displaced, nearly one-quarter of the anticipated 2050 figure which is derived from the impact of climate change alone. 

READ MORE: A special week of coverage on asylum seekers and refugees 24-28 June

The present refugee crisis has led to a rapid rise in racism in Europe, with horrific refugee camps in Turkey and Greece licensed by the EU, and thousands drowning in the Mediterranean while those who seek to save them are prosecuted. An increasingly right-wing and intolerant politics from London to Rome has driven this barbaric hostility. The very few politicians who have sought to provide a home for refugees in dire need have faced negative consequences at the ballot box.

All of this, and Europe is dealing with just a fraction of the global refugee crisis - most refugees are internally displaced, and the vast majority of those who move across borders do so to countries in the global south. In no year of the refugee crisis has the number of new European citizens topped one million, with the largest being 995,000 in 2016. The obvious question is, if European society cannot adapt itself to this, how will it cope with a movement of people five, ten or 20 times this size?

Only now is Europe even accepting and defining the concept of a climate refugee. But accepting that it exists is a long way from adapting societies to not just its acceptance, but embracing the way in which it will inevitably change our environment. Of course the greater climate action we take now, the greater prospect of avoiding the sort of monumental climate refugee crisis described above. But we need to be realistic enough to accept that there will need to be adaptation to the new realities of a hotter, more volatile climate, and that adaptation will have to see western societies think entirely differently about rights, people, place and the value system of our economy.

Frank Bierman and Ingrid Boas were one of the first academics to publish on global governance of climate refugees in 2010. They argued that the current architecture of global governance for refugees is ill-equipped to “cope with the looming climate refugee crisis”, as the scale of the problem and the fact that it can some extent be predicted and planned makes it not just an issue of protection of vulnerable people but a “problem of development policy”. 

They therefore propose a different “regime” for dealing with climate refugees, one that is more pro-active, based on “the principle of planned re-location and resettlement”, rather than temporary asylum, which would also include collective rights for climate refugees displaced from population centres, so they can to some extent re-build their lives as a community. Finally, the principle of “international burden-sharing” is proposed, whereby industrialised economies acknowledge they have been the greatest contributors to climate breakdown, and therefore must at minimum share equally in its impact on displacing people (including in funding their re-location and resettlement).

From an international human rights perspective, this is all perfectly sound. What it doesn’t contend with is the politics of the situation in western countries. A short section at the end of Bierman and Boas’ paper states that “the indications are not promising” that these countries are ready for the scale of the climate refugee challenge. This severely under-estimates the problem. 

It’s not just that a hostility to immigrants and refugees clearly remains deeply engrained in western societies, it is that the vast majority of the people who have moved to advanced economies in recent times have been economic migrants who have been of net economic value to the host country, in terms of GDP and productivity. Immigration from poor to rich countries is part of the fabric of neoliberal globalisation, with countries competing with one another to attract “the brightest and the best”. A climate refugee crisis that is an order of magnitude larger in scale than economic migration will also be fundamentally different in its relationship to the economy - far from being driven by the economic incentives of global capitalism, it will bear a net negative financial cost on host countries when assessed based on those same measures of GDP and productivity.

READ MORE: Moments of Freedom: New Scots women in Clydebank on their Refugee Festival event

Thus, not only will Bierman and Boas’ proposal have to contend with reactionary hostility to ‘the other’, it will come up against guiding philosophy of the political and economic establishments of the western world, geared to limiting their own exposure to the climate refugee crisis at the expense of their rivals. For those who govern our present epoch, climate refugees will be like an expense item on a corporate balance sheet. 

The clear political risk is what we are already seeing, only on a much bigger, more brutal scale - the coming together of political and financial elites with racist, authoritarian movements, to suppress the movement of climate refugees to the western world by locking down the borders. Think Donald Trump on steroids. Philip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, famous for his savage indictment of UK Government welfare policy, has today published a new report warning of “climate apartheid”, where the rich pays to protect itself from the worst affects of climate breakdown while the rest of the world is left to burn. Alston argues that “human rights might not survive the coming upheaval”. Locking the borders to keep out climate refugees would be an obvious logic of climate apartheid. 

But there is no reason why this has to be our future. There remains open the possibility of an entirely different approach to climate refugees, but it will require a system change bigger than pushing back against the most repulsive aspects of the authoritarian right.

READ MORE: Scientists: State-led planning, not markets, is the only hope for preventing a planetary climate catastrophe

As Bierman and Boas’ imply, what’s required is a level of international co-ordination and planning that will have to over-ride markets and the incessant drive for global economic competitiveness. It will require a willingness to share places and resources that will push up against the boundaries of the private ownership of land and housing, and with it the assumption that property values will invariably continue to rise.

And that will all have to be tied together with a culture shift that goes far deeper than liberal cosmopolitanism, which is primarily concerned with the rights and freedoms of white, middle class, western people. An anti-racism that embraces the rights of whole towns and cities from the global south to establish themselves in western countries, and that western countries have the responsibility to financially support them in doing so, goes way beyond defending the freedom of movement of people within the relatively rich club of EU nation-states. 

There are very few positives to be found in the prospect of a climate refugee crisis. But if one can be found, it is that it forces us to think about how we fundamentally change the way our society and economy works so that we plan, share and care. Climate refugee crisis or not, shouldn’t we be seeking such a change anyway?

Picture courtesy of McKay Savage

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