International Unitarian Universalism

Confronting Climate-Forced Displacement with Global Compassion

By Andrew Mickle

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Changes in the Earth’s climate caused by humans ⁠have had increasingly disastrous effects on our world. An extensive new report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) comprehensively details many of these negative consequences and what to expect in the years to come. One of the most harmful is the increased propensity for heat waves, droughts, and other climate disasters — and the forced migration this entails.

According to a report by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (PDF), 30.7 million of the 40.5 million new displacements worldwide in 2020 were caused by environmental disasters. The remaining displacements are considered to be caused broadly by “conflict,” which can include conflicts over resources such as water or land that are also driven in part by climate change. While environmental disasters are not entirely caused by human-made climate change, we have led them to increase drastically in frequency and magnitude.

For example, the IPCC report explains that human activities have already heated the planet by 1.1 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and are more-or-less inescapably on track to heat it an additional 1.5 degrees Celsius over the next two decades. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre report states that a 1-degree-Celsius increase in global temperature threatens a 50% increase in the risk of flood-related displacement. More gradual examples can be found in desertification, melting glaciers and ice sheets, and loss of biodiversity, among others. And many of these effects contribute to a downward spiral for the global climate and ecosystems, such as rising oceans flooding the land, causing soil to become oversalinated and much more difficult to use.

Field of dried up corn stalks during a drought

All of this combines to send a clear message: We need to take action now, and on a global scale. The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) is, for the first time, considering how international refugee law could potentially be applied to “climate refugees,” people displaced by climate disasters and conditions. The issue is that according to the defining legal document in this area, the 1951 Refugee Convention, the person or people in question need to have fled to escape “persecution.” Under a strict interpretation, this may disqualify climate-displaced peoples from being afforded the same international protections as other refugees. However, some leaders have already begun discussing ways to tackle the enormous challenge that climate-forced migration presents, including U.S. President Joe Biden.

Meaningfully confronting the consequences of climate change on vulnerable populations also requires acknowledging the driving forces behind the phenomenon. 71% of all greenhouse gas emissions between 1988 and 2017 were caused by just 100 companies and state entities, and just over half of greenhouse gas emissions were caused by only the top 25 polluters. We have known for decades that human activities have contributed significantly to our world’s changing climate, while energy industry giants who profit from the destruction of the Earth spend hundreds of millions of dollars per year to prevent or hinder policy efforts to combat the problem. As long as we have systems that care more about corporate earnings and economic efficiency than human lives and livelihoods across the globe, stopping human-made climate change at its roots won’t be possible.

This is where our faith and our world community calls us to engage in the struggle for climate justice, including for the dignity and safety of people displaced by climate change. As we attempt to navigate and rectify the damage done, it is critical that we ensure that our leaders and our communities care for all those who are affected. If, as predicted, the number of climate refugees reaches 1 billion by 2050, we will need to have established a systemic approach based on caring for our fellow humans and providing them safe shelter. And if we don’t demand this now, the rising xenophobia of the past decade shows that our leaders may just as easily choose to turn away those in need at our doorsteps.

In the end, none of us is safe until all of us are safe. By caring for all those displaced by climate change and related causes, we care for ourselves and those who come after us. The United Nations has a Global Compact on Migration and a Global Compact on Refugees. Both require wealthy nations to provide humane and safe pathways to migrate, and to fund expenses for refugees where they are located. The money will be spent regardless, since ignoring the global migration crisis and its impacts is off the table; our only choice is how to spend it.

Governments can choose to throw money at border walls, military-grade security equipment, surveillance, and related activities which, no matter how comprehensive or heavy-handed, have failed to stop migration. Or, we can spend the money to care for each other. This funding could provide safe havens and services for migrants, where people can live in dignity with shelter, food, water, sanitation, education, and income-generating activities, providing a decent, dignified life for people and their families. A guaranteed productive path forward will also greatly reduce how often such desperate measures to reach safety are necessary, and will better enable migrants and their receiving communities to meaningfully live in relationship with one another.

This should not be a question of money but of morality. We must invest in addressing the root problems that create displacement, and in compassionate responses that are consistent with our values of promoting the inherent worth and dignity of every person, everywhere.

The UUA Office at the UN encourages you to join us in our efforts. The 2022 Intergenerational Spring Seminar will address the theme of climate justice and climate-forced displacement. It is expected to take place in New York City, April 22-24, 2022.

About the Author

Andrew Mickle

Andrew Mickle is an intern with the UUA Office at the UN during Summer 2021. He is a second-year Master of Public Policy student at Penn State University, having graduated from the Political Science Bachelor of Arts program in Spring 2021. In addition to serving as a Summer intern, Andrew is the...


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