Why (We As) Climate Activists Stand with Refugees
Hundreds of thousands of people are making their way to Europe these weeks, fleeing from violence, often being met by violence again upon crossing our borders; sometimes – increasingly – met with love and compassion (as well as the occasional bottle of water, toy, or blanket).
“A culture that places so little value on human beings, that it allows them to be thrown to the waves, is also going to allow poor people’s countries to disappear beneath the waves because that is a threat to today’s profits.”
— Naomi Klein
You have probably heard the story: climate change, unchecked, drives extreme weather events and resource scarcity, exacerbating conflict and socio-economic dynamics. Case in point: Syria. While the causes of the Syrian conflict are primarily political, some recent research suggests that a prolonged drought just before the 2011 uprising may have played a role in the ongoing civil war (although this should be seen as only one contributing factor).
Syria is not alone. Extreme weather, which we know is more frequent and more intense as a result of climate change, displaced 157.8 million people from 2008 to 2014. When people are forced to move by the impacts of climate change, they usually move internally rather than across international borders – and chances are future patterns of migration will continue to follow this trend.
So, yes, there is a connection between the climate crisis, and the increasing waves of displacement around the world. No, Syrian refugees coming to Europe are not – directly – climate refugees. And yes, that shouldn’t matter for the climate movement in our region. It’s our responsibility to stand with them nonetheless.
Whether this is a crisis or a new normal, one thing is sure: the suffering and its root causes need to be tackled now. One parallel between the climate and the refugees crisis is evident: governments and political leaders are ill-prepared to cope with them. And in the face of impreparedness, global political and economical elites, whether in the Global North or the Global South, continue with their irresponsible behaviours. As Naomi Klein also points out: “At every stage our actions are marked by a lack of respect for the powers we are unleashing, a certainty or at least a hope that the nature we have turned into garbage and the people we treat like garbage will not come back to haunt us.”
The refugee crisis is complex just like the climate crisis is complex. But another parallel is evident too: people who are already vulnerable and subject to a variety of overlapping injustices will and do suffer the most. Think of the devastation in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan or Hurricane Katrina.
“The task is clear: to create a culture of caretaking in which no one and nowhere is thrown away, in which the inherent value of people and all life is foundational.”
— Naomi Klein
So if the current refugee crisis is not a climate crisis (although the next one might be), why is it important for people like us, who call ourselves climate activists, to stand up with refugees? As my former colleague Deirdre Smith wrote in an enlightening piece connecting US racial justice and climate justice struggles: “Part of that work involves climate organizers acknowledging and understanding that our fight is not simply with the carbon in the sky, but with the powers on the ground.”
For those of us who care about climate because we care about people, this is the time to show it. In the last few weeks, in train stations and islands and refugee camps and border lines across Europe, citizens have been stepping up where their governments have been failing. A dynamic that should sound familiar to most climate organisers out there, who see the frustratingly slow pace of meaningful action by world governments in the face of impending climate chaos, and are rallying up to take issues into their own hands.
“One of the sayings in our country is Ubuntu – the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness.”
— Desmond Tutu
This is more than just about the causal relationships between climate change and migration. It’s about the recognition that at the root of both climate justice and migrant justice is the acknowledgement that people outside of our country borders matter, that they’re fellow humans, that their struggle is our struggle.
And that the struggle is not over when the emergency is over. The ugly truth is that even if we solve the climate crisis tomorrow, we will still have to deal with its impacts for years to come. The Paris UN climate summit has not even begun and authorities have already started to silence the voices of the migrants, those that have been residing in our continent for months or years already – making their stories and their lives (which are, in many cases, stories of the consequences of climate change) invisible. Just in these last few weeks, the surroundings of the conference centre which will host the summit, are being “cleaned”, in the words of the French government; migrant squats and Roma encampments are being violently evicted. The hypocrisy is staggering.
“Recognize yourself in he and she who are not like you and me.”
— Carlos Fuentes
On Saturday, September 12, tens of thousands of people across Europe are gathering for a #EuropeSaysWelcome #RefugeesWelcome European day of action. If we care about climate, as we say we do, let’s join them. We need the movement that embraces a culture of caretaking, regardless of whatever box the issue fits in.
I have the incredible privilege of spending my days at work listening to and sharing stories of injustice and stories of courage. Not once I have thought that sharing stories that don’t fit the climate box risked diluting the attention of my fellow climate activists – I’ve always thought of it as a source of strength to us all.
We’re here for the long run, there’s no “we’ll quickly deal with the climate crisis and then we’ll have time for others” and there’s no way we can win our fight to keep most of fossil fuels in the ground unless we acknowledge the underlying values of shared humanity that drive that effort. It’s time for us to take a stand.