I recently watched a short video on The Atlantic about how empathy is a bad thing from a moral standpoint. In it, the prominent Yale psychology professor Paul Bloom discusses empathy in the context of altruistic behavior and uses Princeton philosophy professor Peter Singer’s idea of effective altruism. Bloom says empathy— the ability to put yourself in another’s shoes— makes you want to help others but blinds you from a long-term vision. For this reason, people care more about a helpless baby than the large threat of climate change. He associates empathy with the type of altruistic behavior that pushes you to donate to charities for a “feel-good” impetus. In contrast, effective altruists are more critical of how they think they can help the world and rather than emptying their pockets to several charities, are more invested in a long-term vision to improve their world.

The fact that the video associated empathy and altruism to climate change revealed a severe disconnect between the way we perceive climate change and the reality of it. What we need to process is that climate change is not a phenomenon that is going to occur. It is already taking effect. In 2014, Kiribati purchased a 20 sq. km piece of land in Fiji. Kiribati has a population of 110,000 scattered across 33 small islands in the Pacific Ocean and it risks long-term flooding as global sea levels rise. It bought the strip of land as a precautionary measure to a possibility that is nearing reality. An article in The Guardian quoted the President of Kiribati saying, “we would hope not to put everyone on this one piece of land but if it became absolutely necessary, yes, we could do it.”

Climate change is intensifying weather patterns and posing immediate risks to island-nations and developing nations, driving citizens away from their homes. In addition to the plight of refugees in Europe, there is an equally pressing but less-known plight of climate migrants. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that an average of 26.4 million each year since 2008 have been displaced because of disasters brought on by natural hazards. Of the 60 million displaced around the world today, a majority live in climate change hotspots.

But the problem is as much political as it is environmental. The UN incoming Secretary General and High Commissioner for Refugees António Gutteres said, “What we are now seeing are more and more people that are forced to flee because of lack of water, because of lack of food, because of extreme poverty and many of these situations are enhanced by climate change”. The current refugee convention, however, does not recognize a person fleeing on the basis of environmental causes as a reason to grant refugee status. A natural disaster can certainly provoke civil unrest and cause people to flee but the refugee convention does not explicitly state that someone fleeing the consequences of a natural disaster is a refugee. The issue is more complicated by the many migrants who are not crossing borders but are internally displaced. Displacement of both kinds due to environmental causes has never occurred at this magnitude since the formation of modern states.

Nineteen years ago, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) First Assessment Report suggested global migration might be the largest impact of climate change. But this has still been slow to muster efforts to deal with such large-scale migration. I see the international community as having two choices: either amend the current refugee convention, or create a new convention that addresses the complexity of climate migrants. Policy researchers and humanitarian agencies have suggested an extension in the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol to include “climate refugees”.

Building a response framework dates back decades, when a definition for an “environmental refugee” was first introduced. Essam El-Hinnawi coined the term “environmental refugee” in a 1985 UN Environmental Programme report as “those people who have been forced to leave their traditional habitat, temporarily or permanently, because of a marked environmental disruption that jeopardized their existence and/or seriously affected the quality of their life”. The UNHCR avoids the term “refugee” but adopted a definition for “environmentally displaced persons” as people obliged to leave their homes because their “livelihoods and welfare have been placed at a serious risk due to adverse environmental, ecological or climatic processes or events”. This recognition, however, does not legally bind the UN to respond to the challenge of environmental displaced persons. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) carries the hopes of climate migrants of being integrated into an international protocol.

Creating a framework to address climate migrants has been controversial for several reasons. Governments worry that recognizing people fleeing a country for environmental reasons as refugees could devalue the protection for current refugees recognized by the Convention. Furthermore, climate migrants are not necessarily fleeing persecution. Another obstacle for climate migrants to gain recognition is that they would seek humanitarian aid over a much longer period of time than refugees from war-torn regions who can return home post-conflict. For the citizens of Kiribati forced to flee because their homes are being flooded by water, it is unlikely that their island-nation will resurface during our lifetimes. Recognition of climate migrants as refugees would bind nations to a long-term commitment.

Before the Conference of the Parties (COP) in Paris in 2015, the Supreme Court of New Zealand dismissed an appeal for asylum as an environmental refugee by a man from Kiribati. It was the first formal appeal of its kind in the world and since the UN Refugee Convention has no category of “environmental refugee”, the court made its ruling after determining that the man was not facing any persecution in Kiribati. In the future, there will be more pressure to recognize persons fleeing environmental risks as climatic events worsen. President Christopher Loeak of the Marshall Islands said, “What’s happening now in Europe with all these refugees will be a small thing compared to what will happen when climate change takes effect.”

A few European nations have taken matters into their own hands. In October 2012, Norway and Switzerland launched a “Nansen Initiative” pledged to “cooperate with interested states, UNHCR and other relevant actors” for a better understanding of cross-border movements and identification of best practices to protect affected people. The Nansen Initiative symbolized international recognition of the humanitarian consequences of climate change and a willingness to adapt. A Platform on Disaster Displacement (PDD) was created as a follow-up to the Nansen Initiative and its Protection Agenda that was endorsed by 109 countries.

Instead of creating a new convention to deal with climate migrants, the PDD integrates existing practices of states and regional organizations to address specific cases of disaster displacement. The PDD prioritizes an agenda for climate change displacement, a much-needed initiative for a predicted displacement of 200 million people by 2050. The Nansen Initiative emphasizes the urgency to address climate-induced displacement and operates by dividing responsibilities among stakeholders, and engaging civil society as well as the private sector in a wider regional framework for a solution to a worsening situation. It was highly applauded by the UNHCR as a soft-law influence that is more “appropriate for the issue because of its bottom-up approach to displacement in terms of sudden or slow disasters”. Even though only a handful of European nations are involved in it today, the Nansen Initiative is symbolic of the international community recognizing the humanitarian consequences of climate change and demonstrates a readiness to adapt.

So far, the slow momentum to aiding climate migrants has not reflected the urgency of the situation. Climate change is leading to potentially the largest migration of people since the formation of modern states and the PDD is now one beacon of hope that should stimulate the UN to be more invested and facilitate interstate cooperation on the matter. For those of us not yet affected by climate change, we need to be the critical altruists that Peter Singer wants us all to be by thinking about the consequences to our actions today. Climate migrants exist alongside our untouched reality. If we really want to promote goodwill, we need to make the issue of climate migrants a spoken norm and spread awareness on the plight of people that is linked to each of us. The way to address vulnerable populations starts with empowered people making leaders listen. 


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Eriko Shrestha
Eriko Shrestha is a student from Nepal pursuing Political Science and Environmental Studies in Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania. Occasionally, she writes for leisure about critical issues concerning climate change and democracy as well as light matters that come out of traveling and movies.
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Really interesting piece. This is a real, growing threat, but it’s difficult to take action on something is when a massive portion of the world’s population does not even believe that climate change exists. .