Shifting Climate, Moving People: Immigration and Climate Justice

By Michelle Chen Dec 15, 2009

The impasse in Copenhagen underscores just how interconnected, and perhaps collectively doomed, we all are in the face of global climate change. And like the rapid currents of trade coursing around the globe, environmental destruction is reshaping the flow of labor and people as they move from one endangered livelihood to another. So it turns out there’s an immigration question embedded in the climate issue. As populations shift, so does economic and political power. No wonder wonks in Washington are starting to realize what people in conflict-ridden regions have been shouting for years: that climate change is a security issue. But national security is only one aspect of the destabilization wrought by climate change. When people’s jobs, land, traditions and communities are facing existential threats of flood, famine, drought and yes, violence–that’s insecurity of a different order. The slow-burning fear seeping through the Global South—particularly those places historically prone to resource wars—is now playing out on the streets of Denmark. But an ideological shift could be underway as a coalition of human rights groups demands that the international community recognize the plight of migrants in an overheating planet. The Climate Justice and Migration Working Group, which includes the National Network for Immigrant & Refugee Rights and Columban Center for Advocacy & Outreach, looks at migrants as survivors on the front lines of environmental disaster and displacement, as well as stakeholders in the debate over restorative solutions. Their agenda dovetails with basic goals of the climate justice movement:

Understanding that climate change jeopardizes the traditional homes, lifestyles, health and means of survival for many around the world, we call for:


  • The international protection of the human rights of people displaced due to environmental factors, including recognition of refugee status and guarantee of all corresponding rights and accommodations achieved through support and expansion of international rights agreements on refugees, the internally displaced and migrants, as well as the formulation of multilateral migration agreements. t
  • Recognition of the right of human mobility.
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  • Increased policy and public awareness of environmental refugee and migration issues, including investment in further research drawing the link between environmentally degrading practices, climate change, and migration.
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  • Provision of a legal framework and financial assistance to allow migrants displaced from their home countries entrance to other countries.
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  • International recognition of the ways in which climate change has impinged on the rights of nations, as outlined by United Nations conventions.
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  • Provision for nations whose security is threatened by the disappearance of habitable land. As these “disappearing states” lose territory, we affirm the right of every nation to sovereignty.
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  • A reduction of domestic carbon emissions, mindful of the ways in which our energy use endangers the environment internationally….

These aren’t new ideas, but the plan is unique in that it threads together international environmental responsibility and transnational social change: on one hand, climate change exacerbates the underlying crises that can only be resolved through redistribution of resources across boundaries—the crux of the rich-poor tensions that have stymied talks in Copenhagen. But looking at these problems in terms of human mobility, as opposed to static boundaries between nations, gives us a fuller picture of what’s at stake. After decades of consuming the earth’s resources like there was no tomorrow, rich societies are waking up to find their tomorrows clouded by catastrophes ranging from famine to armed conflict. As with toxic dumping and deforestation; the damage is finally coming full circle. Yet migration in some ways subsumes the climate-security issue. Working to mitigate climate impacts requires an acceptance of the fluidity of human movement—away from the “invasion” narrative about teeming hordes at the border. It’s true that climate change could push migration and create population pressures for richer countries. But the worst of the crisis is unfolding on the far side of the globe. Studies on the climate-migration link suggest that the people suffering the most are probably the least able to escape their circumstances. Reuters reports:

The [International Organisation for Migration] report, launched on the second day of international climate talks in Copenhagen, estimated 20 million people were made homeless last year by sudden-onset environmental disasters that are set to amplify as global warming increases. But it found that few of the "climate refugees" are able to leave their countries, lacking the means and the ability to travel to wealthier places. Instead, the report found the displaced people were moving in droves to already-crowded cities — putting extra pressure on the poorer countries at highest risk from environmental stress and degradation associated with climatic shifts. "Aside from the immediate flight in the face of disaster, migration may not be an option for the poorest and most vulnerable groups," it said.

Research underscores the need (and obligation) for wealthier countries both to foster mitigation and adaptation in other countries, and to provide a haven for those already forced off their land. Looking at the whole planet as America’s backyard counters the so-called environmental arguments against immigration that greenwash old-fashioned xenophobia. And the environmental-equity concept should also inform debates on global economic reform. The basic problem is that the unsustainable lifestyles of wealthier populations degrade the quality of life of all communities, though the burden obviously falls unevenly across racial, gender and economic hierarchies. Whether they stay or go, whether they’re suffering next door or in the next hemisphere, migration stems from the convergence of environmental destruction and social inequality. It would be an impressive achievement if officials left Copenhagen with a plan to blunt the pain of climate-driven demographic shifts. Yet a far bigger challenge, for which the climate talks are just a prologue, is to get policymakers to understand why policies that exclude and restrict human movement are destined to fail. The universality of the climate threat reveals that in social ecology, humanity constitutes a single demographic–one that nature won’t allow to be contained by politics. Image: Anthony Karumba / The Guardian