Climate justice means social justice

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People are three times more likely to be forced to flee their homes by floods or wildfires than by conflict. Yet, EU policies do not address climate change as a phenomenon that is deeply intertwined with migratory movements.

Alberto Vela and Harrison Vogt report.

The war in Ukraine reveals the EU’s capacity to provide quick and effective assistance to displaced people and, at the same time, how our economic model, heavily based on fossil fuels and resource extractivism, is fueling conflicts and forced migration around the globe.

While in 2015 several Member States closed their borders as a response to the Syrian Refugee Crisis, it only took a week for the EU to implement the Temporary Protection Directive when Russia invaded Ukraine. This directive provided temporary residence permits and asylum for Ukrainians, proving EU’s capacity to give a rapid answer to the conflict by sheltering people running away from horror. Up to 5 million Ukrainians have benefited from the EU’s temporary protection to date.

On top of the principle of international solidarity that should drive the EU, the bloc’s colonial past and its current global trade relations highlight a historical responsibility for many of the conflicts ravaging the globe. Climate change is no exception to this list of EU-induced conflicts.

Every year, World Refugee Day serves as an occasion to highlight the plight of those forced to flee their homes. Yet, people displaced by climate disasters or environmental degradation do not meet the legal definition of ‘refugee’ and often slip under the radar of the public debate. This stresses the growing need to recognise the demographic of climate refugees.

Who is the climate migrant?

Climate change is a significant cause of migration and recent studies estimated that by 2050 it may force 216 million people to leave their homes. It is important to note that this figure relates to internal migration, and not cross-border, as these movements are often framed.

Despite the huge potential for major climate-induced migration and the need for adopting immigration policies around this influx, wealthy industrialised countries are building walls, not bridges for refugees. The world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters spend on average over two times as much on arming their borders as they are on climate finance. The Transnational Institute refers to this spending disparity as the ‘climate wall’.

Aiming to uncover the realities behind the too often invisible “climate migrants”, the Climate of Change campaign coalition has just released a report called “Beyond Panic? Exploring climate mobilities“. Carried out by researchers from the University of Bologna, this report explores the nexus between climate change and the mobility patterns in four countries that are experiencing natural disasters with increased frequency and intensity: Senegal, Guatemala, Cambodia and Kenya.

Vulnerable livelihoods

Located in the tropical belt, all these four equatorial nations are home to economies that are extremely vulnerable to climate. Yet, altogether, these four countries represent 0.1% of current global emissions, compared with the 37% emitted by rich and industrialised countries. 

Climate-dependent activities such as agriculture, fisheries and pastoralism are staples of the four nations’ economies. This makes them increasingly susceptible to the effects of climate change. For example, irregular rain patterns and related extreme events such as drought in Kenya and Senegal and flash floods in Guatemala and Cambodia are wreaking havoc on their economic engines of agriculture and fisheries.

At the same time, environmental degradation caused by the mismanagement or overuse of natural resources is leading to deforestation (illegal logging in Cambodia and Guatemala), desertification (in Senegal and Kenya) and the disruption of ecosystems such as the mangrove forests close to the Senegalese coast. Fishing in Senegal, which employs 15% of its population, is being devastated by global warming, as well as by waste mismanagement, pollution, and ocean grabbing.

Climate change acts as a multiplier of pre-existing vulnerabilities in these countries, such as poverty, lack of resources, and food insecurity, that interact with and influence each other. Hence, people, especially those working with, and dependent upon, the environment, are more prone to migrate as the only adaptation strategy.

Climate justice is mobility justice

Despite the widespread narrative that climate migration revolves around massive migration to the global North, this report confirms that intra-regional migration is far more prevalent than international migration when it comes to environmental-related reasons.

For migrants in the four previously mentioned countries, highly restrictive visa systems plagued with exorbitant costs, mean that regular channels for cross-border migration are extremely limited and less likely. This leaves people engaging in cross-border migration to face higher risks of exploitation and large costs in securing passage internationally.

The EU bears a major responsibility for these dangerous migration corridors. As our institutions have demonstrated with the Ukraine war, regular migration pathways can be established to provide temporary protection for displaced people through regional and bilateral free movements’ agreements.

The need for a climate of change

A safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment is a human right recognised by the United Nations that is not being exercised in many parts of the world. This calls for urgent action, as we demand in our #ClimateOfChange petition to European leaders for COP27.

Climate justice is not only a matter of defending the right to move, but also defending the right to dwell, to remain and provide climate reparations to assist with this. The EU, as one of the regions that have contributed the most to the climate crisis, must cultivate solidarity alliances and collective action with people in the Most Affected People and Areas (MAPAs), providing enough financial support to fund the mitigation and adaptation policies.

To avoid a ‘climate apartheid’, industrialised wealthy counties must adopt new ecological thinking, confronting and overcoming the extractivist and colonialist logics of their economic relations. The EU can and must accelerate the transition out of fossil fuels, embracing energy efficiency, renewables and responsible modes of production that don’t put the interests of corporations above those of people and nature, especially within the Global South.

The existing order is a threat to long-term environmental security. Only an ambitious transition towards a socially and ecologically just well-being economy could meet the needed scale of action. The Paris Agreement’s commitment to keep global warming below 1.5°C is not our only way to avoid catastrophic environmental consequences, but also to secure the human, social and economic rights of millions of people.

It’s time to address the climate crisis as a social crisis, drawing attention to the interconnecting nexuses of our extractive economy and its unequal impacts around the globe.

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