Immediate action must be taken to stop climate change in light of environmentally induced displacement of refugees, according to a panel discussion organized by the Environmental Futures Initiative in the Mortara Center on Monday.
Program Director for the Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship James Olsen, who is a faculty member in the EFI, moderated the panel, which included advocacy organization Refugees International Climate Displacement Program Manager Alice Thomas, Environmental Law Center attorney Sofia Yazykova and anthropology professor Mubbashir Rizvi.
Olsen said the issue of refugees displaced by climate change is extremely important in the context of today’s issues.
“I just think that it’s such an incredibly important topic. It’s one that somehow we’ve kind of been able to ignore,” Olsen said. “We’re talking about potentially a billion people that are living in these vulnerable populations that are going to be migrating in coming years.”
Climate change poses serious challenges to communities worldwide, from low-lying island-nations menaced by a rising ocean to regions in sub-Saharan Africa susceptible to drought, according to Thomas. Thomas said the countries least responsible for climate change may be the most affected, as shown by the 2011 Somalia famine, which killed 260,000 people.
“I think there is a huge justice component of what’s happening here, because invariably the people who are worst impacted are those who are least responsible for climate change,” Thomas said.
Yazykova said the issue is compounded by the issue of people displaced by natural disasters not being protected by international conventions on refugees.
“They don’t fall under the standard definition of refugees because they’re not escaping persecution, they’re trying to escape due to environmental causes,” Yazykova said.
According to Yazykova, countries must cooperate to deal with displaced populations. Yazykova urged more countries to adopt measures to allow for the relocation of climate-displaced refuges from Pacific island-nations threatened by high sea levels.
Rizvi said climate change is both causing a refugee crisis and deepening divisions in the world.
“On the one hand, we’re thinking about humanity as becoming more and more vulnerable as a whole together,” Rizvi said. “We’re also seeing a disconnect, or perhaps a breakdown of what it means to be human because of the increased inequality between, let’s say, the refugees, citizens, people in the poorer parts of the world.”
The panelists also expressed concern as to whether President-elect Donald Trump would follow through on his campaign promise to pull out of the Paris climate agreement, which commits almost 20 countries to reduce emissions. A particular problem highlighted by the panelists was the prospect of the United States withdrawing funds for developing nations deal with the effects of climate change.
According to Yazykova, Trump’s campaign promise to pull out of international climate change engagements could exacerbate the issues faced by countries by reducing funds for developing nations dealing with the effects of climate change and increasing the number of migrants from impacted areas.
“If a state is already experiencing problems of climate change, that might actually facilitate conflict in that state,” Yazykova said. “So there might be a civil war, for example, breaking out so again, migration will increase.”
Thomas said students should pressure federal, state and local governments to act on climate change if the Trump administration withdraws the United States from its climate change commitments. Addressing climate change now is essential, according to Thomas.
“I think where we need to be looking in the future is what can happen at the state and local level,” Thomas said. “That’s true for climate mitigation, it’s true for adaptation. We don’t have time for these people of four years to decide whatever they’re going to decide, we don’t have time in two years.”
In an interview with The Hoya, Olsen said the next administration may be forced to respond to climate change differently from how it intends because of a potential refugee crisis.
“It’s the sort of thing where politicians can have a certain stance, they can take a sort of ideological position but they can also sometimes get overwhelmed by events,” Olsen said.
Yoel Fessahhaye (SFS ’18) said he is hopeful public pressure would lead to the United States taking action to help climate refugees even under a Trump administration.
“We all know what it means to leave your home, whether it be political persecution or stuff like this,” Fessahaye said. “So I think we can all relate and I think in that sense there will be some backlash if President-elect Donald Trump does not do anything about this.”
Correction: This article previously stated the event was organized by the Global Futures Initiative; it was organized by the Environmental Futures Initiative. This article has also been updated to reflect that James Olsen is a faculty member in the EFI.
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