Climate, Cause, and Conflict: On the Inadequacies of "Climate Refugee"

This post is part of a multi-year project, Being Human in the Age of Humans: Perspectives from Religion and Ethics led by Lisa Sideris (Indiana University), Celia Deane-Drummond (Notre Dame), Sarah Fredericks(University of Chicago), and Kyle Powys Whyte (Michigan State University). To read the introductory post for the blog series, click here.

Dead Trees

The conflicts in Syria are once again intensifying. One likely result will be still more refugees fleeing the violence. They will be stepping onto a well-worn path: over the last several years, about 5 million Syrians have fled violence, becoming refugees in counties both near (Jordan) and far (Canada). While their impact as persons on the countries to which they have fled has been mixed (and, for many countries, quite limited), their impact as symbols on the political systems of many of the countries to which they have fled has been extensive, including fueling the growth of un- and anti-democratic right-leaning and far-right political parties throughout the world. What, one wonders, will happen when the tens of millions of climate refugees predicted within the next decade reach public/political consciousness? Or when potentially hundreds of millions of climate refugees stress economic systems, overwhelm relief agencies, provoke social unrest, and reshape political relations around the world?

Those last questions are not rhetorical. Nor are they easy to answer.

First, there are definitional problems. The term “climate refugee,” although widespread, is applied to a wide variety of persons and intermixed with other terms (e.g., environmental migrant, ecological refugee, disaster refugee, climate exile) that overlap but are not identical. Strictly speaking, someone becomes a refugee only after crossing an international border; the term, though, is regularly used to refer to people who are forced to flee a natural disaster but stay in their own country. I live in Atlanta, Georgia, a city that received thousands of residents of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and some of whom never returned. Should they count? “Natural-disaster-caused-internally-displaced-person” doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue, after all. Are those who flee a natural disaster from which their community may recover the same as those who leave a community because it faces increasing numbers of natural disasters (e.g., recurrent flooding), growing hardship (e.g., farmers dealing with desertification), or its disappearance (e.g., those whose communities are being obliterated by rising sea levels or melting permafrost)? Each type of “climate refugee” impacts economic, political, and social systems, but they do not necessarily do so in the same way. As their numbers increase and their needs continue to vary, policy responses will become more pressing even as nuance within those policies becomes more important. 

2012 South Africa Xenophobia Project 31

Second, there are political problems. Would we call fishermen “climate refugees” who, upon facing catastrophic declines in fish populations due to ocean acidification and overfishing, decided to take up their nets and move across a border they never really recognized? What about herdsmen who are part of already or previously nomadic tribes whose range of movement have increased because desertification makes it harder to find food for their animals, and their movements take them into lands traditionally associated with other tribes? Would we call persons fleeing localized violence that was brought on, in part, by resource scarcity caused by climate change “climate refugees”? What about those facing persecution by warlords and local militias who are taking advantage of the political instability of states weakened by the impacts of climate change? Or those fleeing state-driven violence in countries using the consequences of climate change as justification for oppression? These last are more likely to fit within the traditional definitions of refugee within international law, but how different are they from other persons named in this paragraph?

The proximate causes of the current Syrian conflicts are political: the Assad regime is oppressive, that portion of the Middle East is unstable due, in part, to the war in Iraq, and the Arab Spring was gaining momentum at the beginning of the Syrian conflicts. But sitting behind those political factors was the fact that Syria had experienced some of the worst droughts in its recorded history and the young men in rural areas left their farms to go the city for work. In the cities, they gathered with other disaffected young men, recognized how harmful the Assad regime was, imagined that the Assad regime was fairly weak because of the instability in the area, looked to Tunisia and Egypt, and thought, “Let’s try that.” Were they climate refugees when they went to the cities? Were the Syrians that fled their state due to the violence of the civil war there actually climate refugees? As the numbers of climate refugees increase, we will need to complicate our understandings of causation, itself, to begin to get at how multiple factors—including political and environmental ones—all contribute to the forced movement of peoples.

Finally, there are conceptual problems. It isn’t just that climate refugees are hard to figure out what to do with; it’s that modern thought struggles to know what to do with refugees more generally. They violate settled categories: they express autonomy by moving into a system that will make them even more dependent on others. They carry national identities across borders in ways that modern nation-states find confusing. They rely on resources provided for them that they cannot afford to buy in neoliberal market systems. Refugees have long been a conceptual problem in modern thought. Early modern projects in establishing international law (e.g., the work of Hugo Grotius) regularly skipped over considerations of them in spite of the fact that early modern Europe was awash in them. Add to this the way that refugees are being defined as the “other,” especially by right-leaning political parties around the world, and refugees find themselves in a difficult conceptual space: they don’t fit modern conceptual categories and they are being forced into categories in which they don’t fit and which put them at increased risk. And all this is occurring during a time when the modern conception of the Westphalian nation-state—the very concept that defines the borders which refugees would cross—is unraveling.

Christian Pacifism for an Environmental Age

Over the past decade, there has been increasing attention paid to the questions associated with these definitional, political, and conceptual problems. That is a good thing. Whether this attention is increasing at a rate comparable to the increasing rate of actual climate refugees, though, is an open question. For at least the near term, it looks like things are going to get worse before they get better. In this, at least, the questions raised by climate refugees aren’t the product of definitional, political, or conceptual problems so much as they are a paradigmatic example of the crises being shaped by climate change.

Mark Douglas is Professor of Christian Ethics and Director of the Master of Divinity Degree at Columbia Theological Seminary. His latest book, Christian Pacifism for an Environmental Age, comes out from Cambridge University Press in April 2019.