To Address the Great Climate Migration, the World Needs a Reparations Approach

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Nicolás Ortega illustration for Foreign Policy

Current estimates put the world on track for as much as a 5°C temperature increase by the end of the century, reshaping the places that humans have lived for thousands of years. Island states such as Haiti, Cape Verde, and Fiji face “existential risks” from sea level rise and extreme weather events. By as soon as 2050, large parts of Mumbai, Ho Chi Minh City, and New Orleans may be underwater.

Over the next 30 years, the climate crisis will displace more than 140 million people within their own countries—and many more beyond them. Global warming doesn’t respect lines on a map: It will drive massive waves of displacement across national borders, as it has in Guatemala and Africa’s Sahel region in recent years.

The great climate migration that will transform the world is just beginning. To adapt, the international community will need a different approach to politics. There are two ways forward: climate reparations or climate colonialism. Reparations would use international resources to address inequalities caused or exacerbated by the climate crisis; it would allow for a way out of the climate catastrophe by tackling both mitigation and migration. The climate colonialism alternative, on the other hand, would mean the survival of the wealthiest and devastation for the world’s most vulnerable people.



Residents survey the destruction from cyclonic storm Amphan in Satkhira, Bangladesh, on Aug. 14. Bangladesh is one of the countries most vulnerable to the effects of climate change as rising sea levels increasingly inundate coastal land and raise the risk of devastation from severe storms. Kazi Salahuddin Razu/NurPhoto via Getty Images

As the climate crisis intensifies, social divisions will arise within countries and communities between those who can pay to avoid the worst impacts of climate change and those who cannot—a system of climate apartheid. In Bangladesh, rising sea levels have displaced hundreds of thousands of people, pushing some into poverty and deepening socioeconomic inequality. Increased desertification in Nigeria has caused resource shortages in water and land, leading to conflict between herders and farmers. In the United States, unprecedented wildfires, heat, and smog have hit unhoused people the hardest.

The wealthy find ways to insulate themselves from the worst consequences of the climate crisis. In Lagos, Nigeria, for example, the government cleared hundreds of thousands of slum dwellers to make way for developers. The so-called Great Wall of Lagos sea wall will shield a planned luxury community on Victoria Island from sea level rise at the expense of neighboring areas. The poor, the unemployed, and those who lack stable housing are seeing their living conditions rapidly deteriorate, with little hope for a solution.

Climate colonialism is like climate apartheid on an international scale. Economic power, location, and access to resources determine how communities can respond to climate impacts. But these factors are shaped by existing global injustices: the history of slavery, colonialism, and imperialism that enriched some countries at the expense of others. Global warming has exacerbated these inequalities, and the climate crisis will lead to new divisions between those who can mitigate its impact and those who cannot.

Existing theories of international relations cannot provide policymakers with the intellectual resources to respond to the crisis. The climate crisis is the result of the relentless pursuit of private interests by both multinational corporations and powerful countries: Fossil fuel companies seek profit, governments seek energy security, and private investors seek financial security. These pursuits have contributed to the campaigns of climate denialism that have slowed the international response to climate crisis, and that continue to fuel resource and land grabbing in many parts of Africa, Latin America, and Asia.

Unless these powerful entities abandon financial and political self-interest in favor of the greater good, the pursuit of elite interest in a world where power is distributed so unevenly guarantees climate colonialism—that is, if society survives at all. In recent decades, an increasing number of private companies have embraced corporate social responsibility as a ruling ethos, hoping to align the goals of profit-seeking corporations with the public good—thus converting the market into a tool for driving positive change. But when short-term shareholder value faces off against the public good—and it often does—the former tends to win out. This mismatch of incentives is itself a fundamental cause of the climate crisis.

State actors often bolster these private corporations. For example, recently publicized documents show that petroleum companies lobbied the United States to demand that Kenya lift its ban on plastic bags as part of a broader trade negotiation—a move that would boost company profits. This kind of lobbying is common; when a government negotiates trade agreements, it often seeks to protect the interests of the companies that generate wealth for the state. While some state actors are less nefarious than others, all tend to prioritize their own best interests over those of another country’s citizens.

Liberal IR theorists argue that progress is achieved through cooperation and good will in international organizations and seek to resuscitate those international organizations that the United States has neglected since 2017. Once U.S. President Donald Trump is out of office, they believe the United States will return to its helm as the leader of the international rules-based order.

The problem is that a return to the pre-2017 status quo won’t save the planet, either. Long before Trump, international institutions failed the world’s most vulnerable people. The International Monetary Fund and World Bank have consistently harmed the countries they claim to help. After the oil crises of the late 1970s, the two institutions combined to impose “structural adjustment” programs in developing countries, conditioning much-needed aid on economic policy decisions. The results were disastrous: Structural adjustment has been associated with large contractions in government services for the poorest in the global south and accelerated ecosystem destruction by extractive agribusiness.

Perhaps most glaring is the example of the international refugee regime. As the philosopher Serena Parekh explains, this regime, established in the aftermath of World War II, consists of a patchwork of norms and decision-making institutions shaped by the ascendant Western powers of the era, who stood atop a global political system structured by their formal colonial rule over much of the world. When refugee flows from non-European countries increased in the second half of the 20th century, many Western powers shifted policy. While some refugees were accepted and resettled, many others were warehoused, detained, or subject to refoulement—forcible return—in violation of the U.N. Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees.

Refugee camps proliferated, sold as temporary ways to rescue refugees and sustain them pending resettlement or their decision to return home (known by the euphemism “voluntary repatriation”), but actually served to shield Western elites from the social and financial responsibility of managing large-scale migration, and in particular the political costs of integration and education. The result has been unconscionable: In 2019, only 108,700 refugees were resettled out of a total of 26 million.

The continuation of this status quo will make climate colonialism a near certainty, especially considering recent responses to migration in Europe, Australia, and the United States. Rich Western countries have already responded punitively to migration, holding thousands of migrants in detention centers under horrific conditions and responding with indifference or violence to attempted suicides and protests by the incarcerated for better treatment. Since 2015, European countries have reacted aggressively to the plight of asylum seekers; there is no indication that their response to climate refugees would be any more humane.

Even the institutions charged specifically to protect refugees are failing. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has so far refused to grant refugee status—and the protection that comes with it—to the 21.5 million people fleeing their homes as a result of sudden onset weather hazards every year, instead designating them as “environmental migrants.” Given these threadbare legal protections, it is unlikely that future climate migrants will fare any better. What is needed is a bold reimagining of the policies governing climate migration.



Displaced families line up for water at a collection point set up by a U.N. aid agency at a makeshift camp outside Baidoa, Somalia, on March 14, 2017. Thousands of people arrived daily after fleeing the parched countryside, and the United Nation warned of a global crisis as drought-related famine gripped parts of South Sudan and loomed over Nigeria, Yemen, and Somalia. TONY KARUMBA/AFP via Getty Images

Climate reparations provide a way through the climate crisis without doubling down on these dismal precedents. The term reparations refers to making amends and often connotes one-off cash transfers or apologies. But it is difficult to see how these one-off transactions would offer a solution to the disproportionate impacts of the climate crisis. Instead, climate reparations are better understood as a systemic approach to redistributing resources and changing policies and institutions that have perpetuated harm—rather than a discrete exchange of money or of apologies for past wrongdoing.

A reparations-based approach to the coming wave of climate refugees would address two distinct but interconnected issues: climate change mitigation, which would aim to minimize displacement; and just climate migration policy, which would respond to the displacement that governments have failed to prevent. The reparations alternative would substantially increase developed economies’ contributions to global efforts to address climate change and prevent displacement. It would also end warehousing of refugees and substantially increase migration from the global south.

Examples of promising mitigation policies include the draft climate law proposed by the European Commission in March 2020 that would make a legally binding commitment for the European Union to reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions to net zero by 2050. The Green New Deal proposal, U.S. congressional resolutions that lay out a new approach to tackling climate change, also articulates important mitigation measures.

But to mitigate climate change effectively and fairly, the international community needs to broadly redistribute funds across states to respond to inequalities in resilience capacity and the unjust system underpinning them. As Mohammed Adow, the director of the Nairobi-based think tank Power Shift Africa, explains, the international community has already designed a mechanism that could perform this task: the Green Climate Fund (GCF), which is the largest international fund aimed at helping developing countries mitigate and adapt to climate impacts. However, the $6 billion currently committed to the GCF is a fraction of the $100 billion initially promised to be distributed per year by 2020. Much of the funds committed come by way of private sector financing, reclassification of preexisting aid packages, and loans rather than cash grants or payment-in-kind. As climate impacts intensify in some of the world’s poorest countries, mechanisms like the GCF will become even more important.

A reparatory approach to the climate crisis would require an overhaul of the existing international refugee regime. With this approach, the international community would reject the framing of refugee policy as rescue and rethink the framework that allows states to confine refugees in camps with international approval. Parekh writes that as rescuers, Western states may be praised for helping refugees, but they are rarely held accountable by other states or multinational institutions for not doing enough. But once the issue is reframed so that Western states see themselves as contributing to a “system that structurally prevents the majority of refugees from finding refuge,” taking up their share of global refugee resettlement becomes an obligation rather than an act of charity.

In the context of the climate crisis, the West is responsible for more than secondary harms experienced within the international refugee regime. A reparatory approach seeks to understand which harms were committed and how through structural change, those harms can be addressed. A historically informed response to climate migration would force Western states to grapple with their role in creating the climate crisis and rendering parts of the world uninhabitable.

The legal scholar E. Tendayi Achiume argues that corrective, distributive justice demands recognition of the entitlement of “Third World persons” to “a form of First World citizenship.” She presents an argument for reconceptualizing state sovereignty that challenges the right to exclude political strangers. This framework is especially pertinent in the context of climate justice. Developed economies are largely responsible for the climate crisis and have more resources to manage climate impacts, while developing countries are often less responsible and poorly equipped to survive the impacts—rendering the political exclusion of climate refugees unjust.

In this sense, it merits emphasis that the reparatory framework operates on a sliding scale. Accounting for which parts of the world bear responsibility for structural injustices that shape the present order reduces the burden of countries such as China and India relative to the West. But their policy trajectory could increase their share of the global climate burden relative to other formerly colonized countries. China, for example, has pledged to be carbon neutral by 2060, which is a step in the right direction. But it continues to invest in and profit from coal power projects, often in developing countries that are increasingly dependent on Chinese investment.

To implement a climate reparations approach, the United States has much preliminary work to do. For fiscal year 2020, the Trump administration limited the maximum number of refugees admitted to the United States to just 18,000. On Oct. 1, the day after a Minnesota campaign rally in which Trump leveled insults at Somali American Rep. Ilhan Omar, herself a former refugee, his administration announced intentions to admit fewer refugees than ever before. As a first step, the United States needs to get back to its own normal. Leaders from both parties have set significantly higher ceilings than Trump: President Ronald Reagan’s highest ceiling was 140,000 refugees and President Barack Obama set a refugee admissions target of 110,000 for 2017.

A failure to admit more refugees will accelerate the worst political effects of the climate crisis: fueling the transition of eco-fascism from fringe extremism to ruling ideology. The recognition of rights to movement and resettlement, and a steady liberalization of rich-country border policies fit under a reparatory framework, especially when paired with more sensible mitigation policies. However extreme this renegotiation of state sovereignty and citizenship may seem, it’s nowhere near as extreme as the logical conclusion of the status quo’s violent alternative: mass famine, region-scale armed conflict, and widespread displacement.

Compared to the horrors of climate apartheid and colonialism, having more neighbors is a small price to pay.

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