We’ve known for decades that a climate refugee crisis was coming. Now it’s here, and we aren’t ready.


About a decade ago, I was part of a Quaker climate action group that was trying to get New England Quakers to take a leadership position – both in political activism and in direct action – to deal with the problems of climate change. We started with putting together a presentation that we’d do at various Quaker Meetings around the region. I don’t remember the exact format, but the basic approach was to simultaneously try to drive home the scale of the horrors we face, and then follow that shock up with discussion of constructive action that could be taken at the community level. We showed a video, and then the 3-5 of us there (it was a small group) would give our own presentations/perspectives on the issue. Mine centered around a discussion of the iguanas I got to help study in college, the dangers presented to them by sea level rise, for example. The video we used, called Wake up, Freak out, then Get a Grip, and I think it’s still worth watching now. The animations are well done, and I expect most of you will be able to see where we’re at in the series of events they forecast:

I think we have passed that point of no return. We can slow the warming, and maybe we can reverse it, but even if we do manage to end fossil fuel use by 2030, I think the temperature is going to keep rising, absent any new actions by humanity. In fact, as we stop using fossil fuels, the corresponding drop in particles in the atmosphere is going to cause a brief increase in temperature, as less sunlight will be reflected back into space before it can heat up the planet. There are proposals to deliberately increase particulate pollution to cool the planet, but they are likely to have bad side effects, and will really only kick the can down the road.

As I’ve said, we’re at a point where we need to work out how to live on this hostile new planet, while we work to make its conditions more hospitable to us and the ecosystems of which we are a part. That means infrastructure that’s either extremely resilient, or that’s designed to be very, very easy to relocate.

It also means finding new homes for billions of people, because where they currently live is fast becoming uninhabitable.

Apparently this hasn’t been clear to all of my readers, so I’ll say it outright – my goal is for humanity to thrive. That obviously requires survival, but more than that it requires that we keep fighting for a more equitable, democratic system. There’s little chance that this struggle will be over at any point in the next couple centuries, and if people try to set aside any issues of social, environmental, or economic justice “until we get climate change dealt with”, then not only will that mean billions will die never seeing justice – even if they all die of old age, which they won’t – it will also undermine or even destroy our efforts to deal with climate change. People who are oppressed will always fight their oppression. The more that work has to be done to deal with immediate survival, then less we will be able to pull together for the good of the species. Likewise, we need to take care of the ecosystems around us, and take action to reduce the scale of the mass extinction we’re currently causing.

As with slavery and genocide, simply ceasing is not enough. Reparations are needed.

And as with those other issues, reparations are not – and never have been – about punishing people for doing bad things. One can argue whether or not there’s a place for that, but it’s a separate issue. The point of reparations is not to harm the perpetrator, but to heal the victim. Material harm has been done, and that requires a material response. Simply apologizing for stabbing someone will not solve the problem – the wound must be cleaned, the damage repaired, and the attacker must be prevented from harming others. There are a whole host of actions that need to be taken before anything can be considered “resolved”.

For the rest of our lives, the fastest growing human crisis is going to be that of those killed by climate change, and those fleeing lethal conditions. To stick with the earlier metaphor, the wounds caused over the centuries by colonialism and capitalism never received treatment, and are now badly infected.

The way we have dealt with refugees historically is not acceptable. It has never been acceptable, and on a rapidly heating planet, incompetent and inhumane management will turn into outright extermination.

If you’ve paid attention to the current fascist movement in the United States, you will have gotten a taste of this already. Refugees are fleeing north from Central America. They’ve been forced out of their ancestral homes by colonialism and the neoliberal atrocities it birthed, but also by the changing climate. The response by American fascists has been not just a closed border, but an impenetrable wall (or the fantasy of one), with proposals to electrify the wall, shoot people who approach it, or even lay down landmines. In reality, all of that “active” violence is secondary and in service to the “passive” violence of an impenetrable border wall.

The goal is a desert full of the bones of those who reached the wall and died unable to cross it.

That’s also why they’ve been caught destroying supply drops meant to help refugees survive the already brutal conditions; in keeping with the long history of governments using the elements as a tool of mass murder, and the tradition of treating refugees as undeserving of life, they want anyone trying to flee to the US to die in the effort.

Even if we ended fossil fuel use tomorrow, that problem would not go away. No approach to this problem will succeed without simultaneously working to keep as much of the world habitable as possible, through the use of technology and through land management, but also to ensure refuge for those living in areas that are no longer habitable.

And more than refuge, we need to ensure that they have a say in decisions that affect their lives. The top-down approach has been a consistent failure, and in this new world, things like refugee camps, concentration camps, and “detention facilities” will all become death camps. Refugees need to be able to control their own lives, same as anyone else, especially because it’s a virtual guarantee that anyone in the position of being classified as a “refugee” was not responsible either for the warming climate, or for the decades of misinformation and obstruction that brought us to this point.

Those who are responsible should be held accountable, stripped of all power to harm others, and their resources should be used to help humanity, but that is a secondary concern to ensuring that their victims are made whole to the greatest degree possible. If we are fighting for a better world for humanity, then we must also be fighting for better a better world for those in it right now, not just for those in the future. That’s not to say that no sacrifices will be made. I don’t think that the ruling class will give up their power willingly, and cutting off access to vital resources has always been a favorite weapon of theirs.

I agree that we absolutely need immigration and refugee policies that value human life, but I’m pessimistic about our chances of getting that from the political systems we currently have, not just in the United States, but in many other places around the world. We need to take matters into our own hands, and work to aid and empower people all around the world. The one silver lining is that there’s so much work to be done, that there’s guaranteed to be a role that’s well-suited for just about everyone.


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Comments

  1. says

    Capitalists are in a weird position as goes immigration. I think the most sensible of that senseless parasitic class of humans realize countries like USA and Japan need immigrants badly to prop up the last legs of the “unlimited growth” the system is based on – preferably immigrants with limited legal work protection. But the base of voters most likely to support the other excesses of capitalism – deregulation and pillage – can most easily be provoked by appealing to paranoias such as racism. They can try to coax them to be more concerned about uppity women and queers, but those people are never going to forget their racism as long as their reptile brains are having that same neural region massaged.

  2. klatu says

    There are proposals to deliberately increase particulate pollution to cool the planet, but they are likely to have bad side effects, and will really only kick the can down the road.

    Your assessment is correct, if a bit understated. Any such solution–any solution that does not actually stop the warming trend at the root–can only fail in the long term. All you’d be doing is offset the increasing heat with increased cooling. What happens when you run out of coolant or when it becomes otherwise impossible? The (still growing) heat comes back, but this time without mitigation. Short term survival hack? Sure. Maybe. But long term? Forget it. It is and will always be a losing strategy.

    in this new world, things like refugee camps, concentration camps, and “detention facilities” will all become death camps.

    That’s my fear as well. On paper, the EU must grant every single person a fundamental right to asylum. In practice, people are being shoved into kennels without access to running water or toilet paper. Violence and abuse is rife in these camps. And that is under “humanitarian” law. It’s a fucking atrocity ALREADY. And that’s when there’s “only” a few million refugees. I don’t want to imagine how quickly Europe will return to open fascism when there’s a few hundred million people seeking shelter.

    Fuck.

    I have the nagging suspicion that every idiot government out there is trying to become “climate winners”, not recognizing the unprecendented folly of that very notion.
    And the really dumb thing this is: Our elected officials know what’s up. These people are very well informed. They just don’t give a shit about people.

  3. says

    I think the ruling classes of the world think they can use climate change to consolidate power and bring about a kind of hyper-capitalist techno-feudalism.

    I’ve been working very slowly on a piece about the Canadian cyberpunk show Killjoys, as a fascinating critique of capitalism, of ostensibly “neutral” forces that aren’t really neutral like police, and as a look at how hierarchical societies respond to existential threats like climate change (or an alien invasion that’s a couple centuries away).

    It’s just a very depressing project.

  4. klatu says

    OK.

    Fuck.

    I hate that I’m even writing this, basically.

    But wtf happens when 500 million climate refugees start moving across the globe by 2050 (give or take a few decades, it doesn’t really matter)? You’re a little bit my guru, I admit. But I don’t expext you to have an answer. That would be an unfair thing to ask of any one person. Just… what is your assesment of what is likely to happen? Me? I think it’ll be open fascism everywhere all day long. As in “shoot ’em on sight” or “make ’em work for citizenship” aka slavery. Constitutional rights to asylum? It was a neat idea we used to entertain for a bit.

    Your thoughts?

    (I’m being flippant. This topic is worth its own post, for sure. I’m just kind of… really getting nervous about our collective future. This stuff is horrible to comtemplate. Everthing is going to be actual garbage, isn’t it?)

    While I’m at it (let’s continue this sour note!)… I know you’re going to link to your colletive action post again, as you shoud. It is excellent.

    But there’s a thing nobody is willing to addres publically, that maybe you could expound on.

    I realize WHY there is virtually no official extrapolation past 2100 (or if there is, it’s very tentative). Accurate prediction models break down at some point and this is the date the scientific community has agreeed on. But we are also likely to hit 1.5C well before then (maybe as soon as 2030, by the worst predictions). What I would like to see is an assessment of credible prediction models that go beyond that arbitrary limit (if they even exist). What is our climate going to look like in 2200 or 2500? Even roughly? There is certainly no reason believe that global heating is magically going to stop at precisely 2100. Believing otherwise would be foolish.

    However depressing the answers may be, I beg you to please write something about that. It is, in my opinion, the most willfully ignored facet of the entire problem. And also maybe part of the reason why it’s not taken as seriously as it ought to be.

  5. says

    So there’s a book called 6 degrees: our future on a hotter planet that digs into what things will look like. I personally think that we’re in for a rough time. I don’t see a way around it at this point. I’ve mostly been channeling that line of thought into my science fiction project, but a majority of that is either unfinished, waiting for a response from publishers, or for my patrons (sign up for as little as blah blah blah. Self-promotion always feels gross). I’m looking into re-structuring how I go about working on this blog over the course of a week, so maybe I’ll add in a “Morbid Mondays” segment to look at the bad shit and how to respond to it.

    At this point I honestly think we’re looking at changes that will likely last for centuries or millennia. The planet is warming towards a new state of equilibrium, and how far that goes depends on the content of the atmosphere. There are things we can do to affect the rate of change, and the chemical makeup of our atmosphere. Some of those things I think are definitely a good idea, and some seem very dangerous. Either way, though, I don’t think the warming will fully stop till the world’s permafrost, peat, and hydrate reserves have either all entered the atmosphere or reach some form of stability at a higher temperature through a mechanism I don’t know about.

    Most of the world that’s habitable now will continue to be habitable for most of the time, for at least the next couple decades, possibly longer. It’s a problem for building and maintaining awareness of the issue, but it’s good for survival. Take sea level rise – it’s rising at a steadily increasing rate, but our awareness of it comes in bursts as big storms cause dramatic flooding. Most of those areas aren’t always flooded (though parts of Florida are getting close to that), so what we’ll see is a rise in storm damage, which will probably lead to areas being “ceded” to the the seas instead of being rebuilt. Alternatively, the rebuilding will keep happening, but the new construction will be designed to either float or to stand in permanent water.

    I think the heat will be the hardest thing to adapt to. We know how to protect ourselves from lethal cold – it’s a LOT easier. I think the cities that are functional in 20 years will be those that have invested in infrastructure that can stand regular heat waves like what we’ve seen this year, with the ability for people to go about their business in artificially cooled conditions. There have been some efforts in this direction that seemed doomed to inadequacy (I think I’ll write about those tomorrow) but it is something people are thinking about.

    I’ll think more about how to cover it. It’s worth discussing, but I’m also wary of fueling despair.

    On the “guru” thing, I doubt it’s really needed, but I’ll just say to make sure I’m not your only source of info on all this. It seems highly unlikely that I’m covering everything that needs coverage or that I’m right about everything.

    Remember – pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.

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