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Climate Refugees: “Help Us Learn to Lose Everything”

Executive Director

While I was at the climate talks, I got a number of calls from reporters in the U.S. about refugees. I told them all the same thing: talking about refugees requires talking about climate change, because climate is driving forced migration all over the world.

It was mind-blowing (a term I don’t use very often) to answer question about Texas officials’ shabby response to Syrian refugees as I stood in the Green Zone surrounded by conversations about imminent global forced migration as low-lying population centers are covered by rising sea level. I spent one phone call standing in the Indigenous Peoples pavilion, looking at placards with messages from members of indigenous communities to COP21 negotiators, posted alongside photos of natural disasters wiping out human habitats around the world.

As part of our video blog, Yaira and I interviewed Ta’kaiya Blaney, an amazingly articulate 14-year-old from the Sliammon First Nation in Canada, who described the indigenous perspective on climate change.

Thanks to Texas officials’ spectacular failure of hospitality toward one relatively small group of displaced Syrians, many Texans now are familiar with the Syrian drought. This natural disaster, which scientists link to climate change, destabilized the nation and created conditions for political chaos and violence.

And thanks to the series of natural events that have pounded Bastrop and other parts of our state over the past few years, Texans have learned well how a stable local community can become a FEMA site in a matter of hours.

The message I took away from COP21 about climate change’s impact—from Bastrop to Syria—was: get used to it. Fires, floods, and droughts are the practical consequences of climate change, and they already are leaving millions of people around the world homeless. (See for example this New York Times feature on the Marshall Islands.)

Unlike our neighbors in Bastop, however, many global climate refugees are not only homeless, but stateless. They can’t move up the road or rebuild, because the road is gone along with the rest of the infrastructure. And unlike Texas farmers and ranchers—a primary recipient group of federal assistance over the past few years—small farmers around the world can’t rely on their government to help cover their crop losses.

The Paris Agreement, when it’s complete later this week, will make explicit reference to climate refugees. Future UNFCCC agreements likely will focus more and more on refugee resettlement in the context of climate adaptation, as the impacts of unavoidable change manifest.

For a great overview of the climate refugee issue and its emergence as a major COP topic, here’s an article from Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), an online news service that delivers “unique, authoritative and independent reporting from the frontlines of crises to inspire and produce a more effective humanitarian response.”

In the near future, many millions of God’s children around the world are expected to be completely dispossessed, and they will need our help. As one speaker at a presentation on climate threats to indigenous peoples said, “We need the rest of the world to help us learn to lose everything—our home, our way of life, our identity, our existence.” 

Back here in Texas, political leaders need to abandon their current wave of xenophobia and lead the capable, privileged people of our great state in welcoming the stranger, sharing, and showing compassion to the suffering.

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