LAO334 Final Op-Ed
Word count: 846
Audience: the entire population of the United States
Climate change doesn’t care about borders, and neither should we
When you search for images of the country ‘Kiribati’ on Google, what pops up are pictures of an idealistic looking island with blue water and white beaches. However, what these pictures don’t show you is that this island, located about halfway between Hawaii and Australia, is about to completely disappear due to rising sea levels. This will leave the approximately 118,000 residents with two options: drown or seek asylum elsewhere. However, while the second option obviously sounds the most logical, it is not as easy as it sounds.
When Ioane Teitiota and his wife fled Kiribati in 2013 and applied for asylum in New Zeeland, their case got rejected. While New Zeeland didn’t dispute high tides pose a risk to Kiribati, they didn’t have any laws in place that dealt with climate refugees and thus the court had no choice but to deport the couple. (1) Unfortunately, this is not just the case in New Zeeland. As of today, not a single nation offers asylum or other legal protections to people like the residents of Kiribati, who are forcibly displaced specifically because of the effects of climate change. Considering that the effects of global warming are only expected to get worse, it is high time for developed nations, who are also the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases and thus largely responsible for global warming, to step up to their moral and ethical obligations and protect the human rights of climate-displaced persons.
A recent report by the World Meteorological Organization found that since 2010, severe droughts, floods, rising sea levels and other extreme environmental disasters have forced about 23 million people per year to relocate, a number that is only expected to increase. (2) It is predicted that in 2050, climate change will force the relocation of as many as 143 million people, the majority of which come from regions most vulnerable to climatic changes such as sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, Latin America and small islands. (3)
Since most of these regions also heavily depend on agriculture as a form of survival, extreme weather patterns do not only threaten their homes and safety but also their main source of income. About 320,000 Hondurans apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border from 2012 to 2019 cited the drought and hunger as a result of the failed crops as their reason for leaving the country. (4) Ironically, compared to developed nations in regions less affected by climate change, the nations that end up being disproportionally affected like Honduras emit a negligible amount of greenhouse gases. For example, over the past 100 years, the United States has emitted about 700 times more carbon dioxide than all Latin American countries combined. (5)
Every good parent teaches their children that if they make a mess, its their responsibility to clean it up. The principle is very simple, and should make intuitive sense to anyone raised to take responsibility for their actions. However, the United States so far seems to have done an excellent job at ignoring their responsibility towards climate refugees. During his presidency, Donald Trump did not only decrease the eligibility for asylum seekers (6), he also publicly denied climate change and rolled back about 109 environmental protection regulations, thereby significantly increasing the U.S. emissions and making the effects of climate change in already disproportionally affected regions worse. And while current president Biden has promised a more humane approach towards immigration as well as climate action, he has yet to propose any legal infrastructure that would classify and process climate refugees.
The question that therefore arises among both climate activists and immigration advocates is, how do we get this to change? In their paper about the politics behind immigration policies in America, Tichenor and Rosenblum argue that the fate of immigration reform is largely a function of the issue: ‘how do political elites see the issue affecting their electoral prospects, and how does the issue in fact affect electoral outcomes’? (7) In other words, if we as citizens want something to change, we have to show the politicians we care. This is where another problem arises. While members of the Democratic party tend to largely agree that it is our duty to help refugees as well as mitigate climate change, members of the Republican party have historically used a strong anti-refugee and anti-climate change rhetoric that has provided them with an alibi to close the doors on refugees and refuse action climate change. (8) It is thus the job of climate activists and scientists, and maybe even the job of weather, to show Republicans the severeness of climate change and hopefully generate some empathy and a sense of responsibility.
It is clear to everyone that changing the legal systems to include climate refugees would be expensive, inconvenient and complicated. However, what is even more clear is that ignoring the problem does not make it go away. In 50 years, the island of Kiribati will be completely underwater, and if the United States and other developed countries don’t start taking action now, its residents and their rich culture will sink together with the island.
- Weiss, K. (0247, January 01). The making of a Climate Refugee. Retrieved May 08, 2021, from https://foreignpolicy.com/2015/01/28/the-making-of-a-climate-refugee-kiribati-tarawa-teitiota/
- World Meteorological Organization. (2021). State of the Global Climate 2020 (WMO-No. 1264). WMO.
- Rigaud, Kanta Kumari; de Sherbinin, Alex; Jones, Bryan; Bergmann, Jonas; Clement, Viviane; Ober, Kayly; Schewe, Jacob; Adamo, Susana; McCusker, Brent; Heuser, Silke; Midgley, Amelia. 2018. Groundswell : Preparing for Internal Climate Migration. World Bank, Washington, DC. © World Bank. https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/29461 License: CC BY 3.0 IGO
- Bermeo, S., & Leblang, D. (2021). Honduras Migration: Climate Change, Violence, & Assistance. Duke University.
- Each country’s share of co2 emissions. (n.d.). Retrieved May 08, 2021, from https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/each-countrys-share-co2-emissions
- Pierce, S., Bolter, J., & Selee, A. (n.d.). U.S. ImmigratIon PolicyUnder Trump: Deep changes and lasting Impacts. Transatlantic Council on Migration.
- Tichenor, Daniel & Rosenblum, M.R.. (2012). Poles Apart: The Politics of Illegal Immigration in America. 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780195337228.013.0025.
- Jason P. Casellas & David L. Leal (2013) Partisanship or population? House and Senate immigration votes in the 109th and 110th Congresses, Politics, Groups, and Identities, 1:1, 48-65, DOI: 10.1080/21565503.2012.758588