Don't Celebrate The U.S. For Protecting Climate 'Refugees'

"Refugee" is a specific legal designation that doesn't currently apply to people displaced by climate change.
Children in the Biloxi-Chimacha-Choctaw tribe run over a bridge to get to their home in Louisiana in this 2012 photo.
Children in the Biloxi-Chimacha-Choctaw tribe run over a bridge to get to their home in Louisiana in this 2012 photo.
Julie Dermansky via Getty Images

The Trump administration has been moving to dismantle climate adaptation programs, many designed to aid communities being displaced by climate change. The administration’s actions, which are reckless on their own, have also exposed a troubling reality: Though the media has declared them America’s “first climate refugees,” individuals displaced by climate change ― both in the United States and abroad ― have not actually been granted the legal protections that come with refugee status.

One of the climate adaptation programs the administration is cutting is the Denali Commission, an agency developing plans to safeguard or relocate dozens of Alaskan communities at risk from rising sea levels, storms and melting sea ice. This commission was one of the few U.S. programs in place to help communities displaced by climate change, and it helped ensure protection for 31 Alaskan communities that, according to the Army Corps of Engineers, face “existential” threats from climate change.

As the Trump administration rescinds adaptation and relocation funding ― both at home and abroad ― communities displaced by climate change see themselves in an increasingly precarious position, with little legal recourse upon which to draw for support.

And the mainstream media, unfortunately, has played a problematic role in obscuring the reality of the situation.

In 2016, media outlets across the globe clamored to tell the story of America’s “first climate refugees.” They were referring to the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw of Louisiana, a tribe the Obama administration had committed to relocating after rising sea levels and fossil fuel extraction practices threatened to displace their community.

“U.S. legislators must provide solutions for those who can no longer adapt to their changing surroundings.”

Referring to the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw as climate refugees was problematic for several reasons. For one, many people displaced by climate change resist being called “refugees,” because it paints them as victims, thus ignoring the remarkable agency many of them have displayed. They prefer phrases like “migration with dignity” or “planned relocation.”

Such a label also misleadingly suggests that, just like refugees under the U.N.’s 1951 Refugee Convention, individuals displaced by climate change obtain a legal status guaranteeing them a right to safe asylum. The very term “refugee” refers to a specific legal designation that provides protections to people displaced across international borders as a result of specific forms of persecution. However, this designation and the protections that come with it do not currently apply to people displaced by climate change or to internally displaced persons (people displaced within a country).

Many argue that people displaced by climate change deserve legal protection akin to other refugees; however, that is currently not the case in the U.S. or internationally. Migration scholar Tracey Skillington has said, “In lacking a full legal identity, the climate displaced are pushed into spaces beyond adequate legal protection where their ‘irregular’ status forms the basis of a routine and publicly legitimated legal violence against them.”

The Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw spent 17 years fighting for protection and ultimately had to enter a competition to qualify for relocation assistance, exemplifying the precarious legal limbo that climate change-displaced communities experience.

The program that ultimately provided support to the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw did not specify that they were being protected due to climate change displacement. And the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw were certainly not the first U.S. community to be displaced by climate change. The Quinault Indian Nation of the Pacific Northwest, currently in the process of relocating to higher land, and the Inupiat of Kivalina, Alaska, whom the media also deemed America’s first climate refugees back in 2013, have long been fighting for relocation assistance.

Furthermore, there’s an irony in mainstream media’s celebrating the U.S. for protecting its “first climate refugees.” Even under President Barack Obama, the U.S. resisted efforts to protect climate change-displaced persons under the United Nations ― even though the U.S. is the largest historical emitter of greenhouse gas emissions, and thus arguably the country most morally responsible for assisting individuals being harmed by climate change. More recently, the Trump administration took a large step backward, withdrawing from a United Nations Agreement to establish rights for migrants and refugees more broadly.

The injustice of the U.S. resisting such efforts is compounded by the fact that developing and least-developed countries ― the countries least responsible for climate change ― are the ones suffering the most because of it. As the number of people being displaced by climate change potentially climbs to 250 million by 2050, the global south is set to feel the brunt of the impact, and will likely continue to carry the lion’s share of the responsibility for taking care of migrants and refugees.

Developing countries currently host 84 percent of all refugees; less than 1 percent are resettled in Western nations. Far from recognizing their responsibility to take in climate change-displaced people, rich, polluting, developed countries ― especially the United States and Australia ― are further tightening border security and restricting immigration.

“Communities displaced by climate change see themselves in an increasingly precarious position.”

Climate change-related displacement existed well before Trump took office; however, instead of working to fix these problems, his climate change-denying administration is causing further harm. As the world’s largest historical carbon emitter, the U.S. has a moral responsibility to assist those dealing with climate change displacement. It also has a responsibility to fund climate adaptation programs both at home and abroad.

Having already contributed so much to the problem, U.S. legislators must provide solutions for those who can no longer adapt to their changing surroundings. This includes welcoming displaced persons through the country’s borders and supporting international efforts to protect them.

Until it acts responsibly to address climate change displacement, we should not be celebrating the U.S. for protecting climate “refugees.” Instead, we should be castigating the U.S. for being the largest contributor to climate change displacement.

Alex Lenferna is an Endeavour Research Fellow at the University of New South Wales’ Practical Justice Initiative and a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Washington. His family hails from the island nation of Mauritius; he grew up in South Africa.

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