The Coming Age of Climate Refugees

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

The term “refugees” used to refer to those people who flee their countries for fear of persecution for one reason or another. The United Nations’ Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees signed in 1951 defined “refugees” as “those people who are unwilling or unable to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.” It has been the job of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to grant refugee status to those people who are unwilling or unable to return to their country of origin and help them to relocate themselves in countries where they can live without the fear of being persecuted.

The definition of “refugees” by the UNHCR is quite specific as to the people who are designated as “refugees.” However, many researchers and scholars studying the international movement of people soon came to realize that it was not just the people with the fear of being persecuted who seek refugee status. Hence, it became necessary to introduce the new category of “economic refugees” to distinguish it from the category of “political refugees,” which is covered by the UNHCR definition. “Economic refugees,” or “economic asylum seekers,” are those people who are “pushed out” of their home countries for lack of economic opportunities and hence seek better living conditions in other countries. The reason these people are called “economic refugees” is because that most of them are from the so-called developing countries. For example, of the total of about 15 million refugees that the UNHCR estimated to be a reliable figure as of January 1991, over 80 percent were from Africa, Asia and South America. While there is no doubt that these regions have poor records in upholding human rights, it is also the case that these asylum seekers were trying to escape destitution and poverty in their home countries.

In contrast to “political refugees” and “economic refugees,” the rise of “environmental refugees” is a relatively new phenomenon that started to be noticed by researchers and scholars in the 1970s. As the number of those people who were displaced from their homes and seek resettlement elsewhere reached as high as 10 million around 1985, it was clear that the new category of “environmental refugees” needs to be introduced in order to distinguish them from “political refugees” and “economic refugees.” The number of “environmental refugees” saw a dramatic rise in the twenty-first century with increasing instances of violent storms and natural disasters. In 2017 alone, it is estimated that 68.5 million people were forcibly displaced due to changes in their living environments, including flooding, forest fires, and violent storms.

While researchers and scholars have been advocating the adoption of the term “environmental refugees” to refer to those people who are driven out of their homes, communities, and countries due to dramatic changes in the world’s climate, there is yet no official recognition of that category of people by national governments and international organizations. As a matter of fact, the UNHCR has not granted refugee status to those people who flee their homes, communities, and countries due to weather-related disasters by calling them instead “environmental migrants.” This is so because climate change that drives people out of their homes, communities, and countries is not recognized as a clear case of humanitarian crisis unlike the case of asylum seekers fleeing their countries for fear of being persecuted. One case that illustrates the reluctance to officially recognize the category of “environmental refugees” on the part of national governments and international organizations was the case of the Teitota family from the island nation of Kiribati, whose application for refugee status in New Zealand in 2015 was dismissed by the High Court of New Zealand. The reason for the High Court’s dismissal was that climate change was not a legitimate reason for fleeing a country, although it was clear that Kiribati is one of those nations in the Pacific Islands that are slowly yet surely disappearing by the rising sea level due to global warming. This is in sharp contrast to the people from Tuvalu, whom New Zealand admitted as migrant workers.

As the number of people who are forced out of their living environments due to climate change steadily increases, it is becoming clear that national governments and international organizations need to develop a clear-cut definition of “environmental refugees,” or “climate refugees.” The UNHCR should take the initiative for the official recognition of “environmental refugees” in view of the critical role it has played in providing assistance to those people who seek refugee status for the fear of being persecuted.

The freedom of movement, in the sense of visiting places and seeking suitable employment, should be one of the basic human rights as it is indeed recognized as such in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. More recently, the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration adopted by 164 countries in 2018 called on countries to make plans to support those people who are forced to relocate themselves due to climate-caused disasters. The challenge facing the world today is how to create a workable and legally binding mechanism to allow people to migrate and relocate whether the reason for doing so is political, economic, or environmental. Indeed, in most cases it is difficult to distinguish among political, economic and environmental refugees because the stresses that prompt migration are intertwined.

For references, see, for example, Barnet, Jon, and Michael Webber, “Accommodating Migration to Promote Adaptation to Climate Change”, Commission on Climate Change and Development, March 2009; Brown, Lester, World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse, New York: Norton, 2011; and Jacobson, Jodi L., Environmental Refugees: A Yardstick of Habitability, Word Watch Institute, 1988.

Rebels with a Cause: Young people calling our attention to the reality of climate change

 Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

Naïve and innocent are two of the most widely used adjectives to describe teenagers like a sixteen-year old young lady who sings “Sixteen Going on Seventeen,” one of the songs in The Sound of Music by Rogers and Hammerstein. Other widely used adjectives to describe teenagers—and young people in general—include such words as: angry, foolish, ignorant, impatient, reckless, and wild. These adjectives reflect the conventional view of young people that is prevalent in almost all cultures. In contrast, grown-ups, and older people, are described as being discretionary, knowledgeable, stable, and wise.

There is, of course, an exception to the conventional view of young people. We are made aware of such an exception on September 23, 2019, when a sixteen-year old Swedish young lady by the name of Greta Thunberg challenged the older generations in the world to address the critical issue of climate change with her speech at the United Nations Climate Action Summit. As she sees it, the older generations have stolen her dream and her childhood with empty words about how they are dealing with the issue of climate change. She accuses the older generations because all they talk about is “money and fairly tales of eternal economic growth.”

Given that business leaders and policy makers are still preoccupied with economic growth, it is clear that the older generations do not want to admit that the idea of eternal economic growth is a deluded idea in view of the finite carrying capacity of the universe. They refuse to accept that what is at stake is sustainability, not just of the kind of material standards of living we have become accustomed to but also of the life of humans and all other species on our planet. An increasing number of extinctions of plants and animals reported in the world around us is a clear warning for us because the sustainability of any life depends on the sustainability of the natural environment, which is the whole ecological system with an intricate network of connections and interactions among all living and non-living systems.

In a way, the term “sustainable development” mentioned frequently in academic discourses and political debates seems to have become an excuse for not confronting the critical issue of sustainability of all living and non-living systems in the natural environment. Most economists and politicians find it difficult to dissociate the discussion of economic development from their preoccupation with economic growth and simply define sustainable development as “sustainable economic growth.” Other definitions of sustainable development include: “environmentally sound economic progress,” “ecologically balanced environmental management,” and “the steady-state in the use of matter-energy in relation to the size of human population.” None of these definitions of “sustainable development” is sustainable in view of the finite carrying capacity of the universe. Instead of talking about “sustainability,” we should really be talking about “viability,” for what is being threatened by climate change is the viability of the whole ecological system that includes all living as well as non-living systems in the natural environment.

As a guiding principle, “viability” requires that the use of matter-energy be “minimized” so that the viability of the biosphere, or the space of ecological interaction among all living and non-living systems in the natural environment, is maintained. The requirement of “minimization” in the use of matter-energy in the biosphere applies to renewable as well as non-renewable resources because all resources are subject to the laws of thermodynamics in the finite universe we live in. This means that reusing and recycling of resources must be done to the fullest extent possible, for economizing the use of resources is one way to make sure that “the needs of the present do not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” as the World Commission on Environment and Development reminded us in its 1987 report Our Common Future.

“Viability” as a guiding principle requires that the present generation change its behavior in consideration of what its behavior means for the welfare of future generations. The ethical dimension is essential for “viability”: the code of good behavior on the part of the present generation in a viable society should not be myopic in addressing the issue of climate change in consideration of the welfare of future generations. As Greta Thunberg gives us this warning: “The eyes of all future generations are upon you and if you choose to fail us, I say: We will never forgive you.” It is incumbent on us grown-ups to start listening to young people who are showing us what needs to be done to protect the fragile ecological system called Earth. The urgency of the task for us echoed by Jim Stark, the main character of the 1955 movie, Rebel Without A Cause: “I want answers now. I’m not interested in what I’ll understand ten years from now.” While Jim Stark was a rebel without a cause, Greta Thunberg and her cohorts are rebels with a cause who are calling us to wake up to the reality of climate change: “The world is waking up and change is coming, whether you like it or not.”