Migration, displacement, and the fight for people and planet
Originally published in print on Dec. 19, 2019.
Across the world, more people are being forcibly displaced than ever before. Yet, distinctions between why people move and how they are treated at their destinations are complex to make and increasingly politicized; this is only further complicated by climate change. The planet is warming due to human activity and migration is our human reaction. We have collectively failed to address the causes of global warming and are witnessing the physical and political manifestations of the climate crisis in real time. In the U.S. alone, we are experiencing wildfires, droughts, greater storm surges, and extreme precipitation; regionally, water availability and agricultural production are declining, such as in parts of Mexico and Central America where predicted water loss may reach 50%; and catastrophic weather events are on the rise globally. What is happening to our environment is undeniable, though many will try, and we will all be personally affected by what has become the existential crisis of our time.
If climate change is an environmental issue, then climate justice is the sociopolitical framing that prioritizes human rights and development in order to safeguard the rights of the most vulnerable communities and to share the burden and benefits of an extractive global economy. However, there can be no climate justice without a radical transformation to sustainable alternative economies, because capitalism at its core is the racialized and gendered exploitation of labor (people) and resources (land). Mindless growth is the goal; pillage and plunder until it’s gone. Climate change is the unavoidable result of a global capitalist economy, and without completely dismantling the way we consume, trade, finance, and own property, we will not be equipped to achieve a civil and social rights agenda.
People will continue to move in order to find safety and security, and their displacement, whether internal (in their own countries) or external (in other countries), will challenge infrastructure, urban development, public health, and livelihoods in ways that are currently unknown. There will be an estimated 140 million internal migrants by 2050, and by 2080, 20% of the world’s population is likely to be displaced due to climate-related disasters. Entire communities (and in some cases, entire countries such as Tuvalu, the Marshall Islands, and potentially Fiji) will have to be resettled. This is inevitable and there is currently no global institution or mandate to address climate migration.
The organizations that do exist such as the International Organization on Migration (IOM) and United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) operate in silos and lack political power to identify or implement real solutions. The frightening truth is, many experts in the field are left in the dark when it comes to climate migration and there is a lack of political will across powerful industries and constituencies that will be most impacted by climate action (such as the automotive industry). This ultimately yields to the idea that as long as we operate under capitalism, which places political- and corporate-oriented concerns over those of the greater good, we will not see effective solutions in response to climate change.
City governments and mayors are currently at the forefront of climate justice efforts seeking innovative ways to address migration and climate change in their localities. An example of this is C40 Cities, a collective of mayors “committed to delivering on the most ambitious goals of the Paris Agreement at the local level, as well as to cleaning the air we breathe.” The problem is many of these city administrations must often operate under federal or state governments that are hostile towards both immigrants and the environment, such as those in the U.S. It is estimated by the U.N. that by 2050, 2.5 BILLION people (68% of the world’s population) will move to urban centers worldwide, and this mass exodus raises serious concerns about how cities and communities will cope, such as where food will be grown and what type of work and housing will be available to those people. Further, because the pace of urbanization is fastest among low-income and lower-middle-income countries (places like Lagos and Jakarta), other mega-cities could become increasingly ungovernable.
It is clear that weather-related displacement will impact low-income and minority populations the most, many of whom are often unable to navigate government bureaucracies to obtain post-disaster assistance. There will be gentrification of neighborhoods that are deemed safer; and in places like the U.S., migrating people into one community over another might raise political questions around whether relocating people into certain places is a form of gerrymandering (otherwise known as “map manipulation”). If we integrate the mostly liberal city dwellers of Miami into a conservative city like Jacksonville, there will be massive implications in terms of voting power and local taxation, as well as in the forms of segregation and uneven urban development. Often cited is the post-disaster redevelopment of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The city was further segregated by race and class in its rebuilding because of deliberate government policies and legal rulings that pushed black residents outside of more desirable neighborhoods that were deemed safer from flooding.
Most migration due to climate change will occur between and within countries in the Global South—countries that are unable to foot the bill for a problem caused by the richest nations (the U.S., the U.K, etc.). Internally displaced people—those forced to relocate within their own countries—are defined differently from migrants, refugees, or asylum seekers by global institutions such as the U.N. While these distinctions are political, they do carry weight in global fora around displacement and international legal protection. However, because it is difficult to prove refugee status in most countries and there is not a single widely accepted definition of what a refugee is, the narrative that there are “climate refugees” is harmful rhetoric that tends to leave most displaced people out of the conversation, such as agricultural workers who migrate because they can no longer find employment due to droughts or wildfires or those fleeing gang violence that stems from climate-induced economic insecurity. There are many examples of people who may not have lost their homes due to a natural disaster, but are nonetheless affected by climate change and are displaced for climate-related reasons.
Further, can we actually say that migrants or refugees are legally “protected” in countries such as the U.S. that are inherently racist and anti-immigrant? The reality is that nation states have significantly less power than they once did because multinational corporations significantly shape the agenda and outcomes of negotiations between and within states, and the rise of authoritarian populist leaders has tarnished the international diplomatic establishment. Look at the landscape of the U.S., for example, and how the business group the Industrial Energy Consumers of America (IECA) urged Trump to exit the Paris Agreement despite the fact that many of its largest member companies publicly claimed to support international climate action.
Migrants are already at the frontlines of global inequality regardless of why they migrate, and the number of people who are displaced by conflict is relatively similar to those displaced by climate. There is a causal link between climate change and conflict that only further complicates the climate change-conflict-migration nexus. Climate change will only enhance existing social patterns that cause inequality, poverty, and the movement of people who primarily migrate for economic reasons. Corporate hyperconcentration and the extreme imbalance of power between multinationals, the 1%, and everyone else is the principal driver of economic insecurity and nation-state fragility; therefore, confronting corporate power is inextricably tied to climate justice, migration, the protection of democracy, and transnational security.
The Neoliberal experiment has failed the majority; income growth for Americans has declined from 1.7% between 1963 and 1979 to 1.3% between 1980 and 2016, and the top 1% have seen a nearly 300% increase in wealth since 1989. More inequality means less economic growth overall; opportunities for those not already at the top are more limited, thus obstructing the supply of people and ideas. Inequality further subverts the institutions that manage the market, meaning greater abuse of monopoly power by corporations, dysfunctional markets, and distorted demand through its effects on consumption and investment, which has a destabilizing effect on any sort of growth in economic output.
We are all complicit in “late-capitalism” or whatever you want to call it, willingly and unwillingly, and individual action is not enough to combat it. Individualism is not just a lynchpin of the Republican party in America; it is at the heart of consumerism and neoliberalism. As environmental journalist Martin Lukacs states, capitalism relies on us believing that systemic problems caused by an exploitative system (such as poverty and joblessness) are personal deficiencies, and “neoliberalism has taken this internalized self-blame and turbocharged it.” Lukacs continues to explain that “[capitalist society] tells you that you should not merely feel guilt and shame if you can’t secure a good job, are deep in debt, and are too stressed or overworked for time with friends. You are now also responsible for bearing the burden of potential ecological collapse.”
This crisis is too big for us to solve by riding our bikes, recycling, and ranting on social media (though we should definitely continue to do so). It requires a collective effort to completely transform our political and economic structures from the inside out. This is only becoming clearer as demonstrated by recent concurrent yet unrelated protests across Europe, Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and South America over economic struggles and inequality.
Trade unions and labor unions are at the forefront of building worker power in the fight for equity and to protect democratic ideals. However, in countries like the U.S., there have been sharp declines in union membership as a result of the chipping away of collective bargaining rights by Republicans and elites. Regardless, the global labor movement is working transnationally to find new ways to level the playing field. One of these is through mainstreaming what is called a Just Transition framework.
According to the Climate Justice Alliance, “Just Transition is a vision-led, unifying, and place-based set of principles, processes, and practices that build economic and political power to shift from an extractive economy to a regenerative economy.” The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and other worker organizations are investing heavily to accelerate this process and to crucially ensure that workers, indigenous people, migrants, women, and other vulnerable groups are at the table in planning the transition to a low-carbon world.
In the progressive movement, socialism is frequently viewed as the go-to counterforce to capitalism, even though unsuccessful contemporary applications of the concept have left it largely discredited. Holding onto power in order to enact systems of change is a very delicate balance; unfortunately, this means that many revolutionaries who were afraid that socialism wouldn’t withstand became authoritarian in the end. Socialism needs a 21st century makeover and it is not the only alternative—worker cooperatives and shared ownership models are both certainly parts of the solution.
Buen Vivir, a social movement that started in Ecuador, is an example of community-centered development focused on living in complementarity with others and the land. Degrowth theory advocates for the “equitable downscaling of production and consumption that increases human well-being,” and the devaluing of capital as a way to achieve sustainability and justice. The Commons Movement is a growing countervailing force to profit-centricity, and Feminist Economics accurately names and offers an intersectional alternative to “women’s unpaid and undervalued care work for the profit of others.”There is no single solution to what is an infinitely complex and unprecedented problem, but we must understand our history and how our planet got here if we are to find real human-centered solutions. If governments, NGOs, environmental activists, and other groups working on climate issues do not address the legacy of colonialism, white supremacy, and patriarchy in the U.S. and the world as major factors in how we ended up with a dying planet, there can be no climate or migrant or worker or gender or social or economic justice. Developing climate-smart agriculture, building infrastructure that allows people to find temporary shelter, consuming less, and investing in low-carbon goods are micro-level shifts we can adopt in addition to experimentation around alternative economic models. We need to strengthen linkages between urban and rural areas so that cities are not overwhelmed by population bursts and we need to break down the ideological barriers between them. We must figure out the right combination of policy approaches (the Green New Deal is a start) in order to prevent people from having to move; however, we should enable people to move if they so choose (how can a person be illegal on stolen lands?). The fight for our futures is a fight for collectivism and we must forge a path that benefits people and planet in a way that is not contradictory.