The Issue that COP26 Overlooked: Climate Refugees

The 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) drew to a close in Glasgow on November 12, bringing to an end two weeks of negotiations between corporate and political leaders on how to combat climate change. The purpose of the conference, prior to its convening, was contextualized by experts and advocates; while Paris was about ‘goals,’ Glasgow was going to be about ‘action.’ The discussions that unfolded, however, confirmed that the world has yet to confront the full reality of climate change. One issue, in particular, went completely unacknowledged by the conference. Whether inadvertent or deliberate, this oversight is deeply concerning because it speaks to our collective unpreparedness for an emerging crisis of global proportions. It is a phenomenon so pervasive, so universal, and so inextricably linked to the course of climate change that any strategy for the future would be incomplete without addressing it: climate refugees.

What was achieved at COP26? If you judge by what an international climate conference can achieve, it was a moderate success. The Glasgow Climate Pact, signed by nearly 200 countries, kept alive the goal of capping global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius. Alternatively, if you judge by the strength of the commitments made, it was disappointing. The world’s two biggest polluters, China and the United States, agreed to work together to limit their collective impact on global warming, but provided little detail as to how this cooperation would manifest. 100 countries agreed to cut methane emissions by 30% but major agricultural industries like Australia and China did not sign up. Moreover, India, backed by China, successfully negotiated a crucial revision to the pact, which now calls for countries to “phase down” rather than “phase out” the use of coal. When it came to reinforcing climate alliances, the conference was more a collection of disparate parts than a unified body. Western nations did little to assuage the concerns of vulnerable countries on the frontlines of climate change. The United States and the European Union were particularly evasive about their commitments to finance countries recovering from climate-related disasters and successfully negotiated the omission of any reference to these commitments in the final agreement. On the whole, the achievements of COP26 will do little to ameliorate the devastating impact of climate change in the world’s poorest countries. And when looking at the future of those who will be displaced by this impact, COP26 was a dismal failure and a lost opportunity.

Climate-induced displacement should have been on the agenda at COP. Leaders of island nations delivered powerful messages about the existential threat posed by rising sea levels. The most impactful among these messages, in my opinion, were from the Prime Minister of Barbados Mia Mottley and the Foriegn Minister of Tuvalu Simon Kofe. The former set the tone of the opening ceremony in Glasgow with a resounding, unequivocal call to action and the latter put the entire conference into context by speaking from knee-deep in seawater off the coast of Funafuti, Tuvalu. Yet, for some reason, the connection between the global refugee crisis and the “pressing issues of human mobility under climate change” – as Kofe put it – was not made.

Climate change is expected to permanently displace more than 200 million people by 2050, leaving another 50 million at risk of death due to climate-related events such as unprecedented flooding and continental drought. But there is currently no formal definition, recognition or protection under international law for climate refugees. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) currently “does not endorse” the term ‘climate refugee.’ “People may have a valid claim for refugee status where the adverse effects of climate change interact with armed conflict and violence,” reads the justification on the UNHCR website. But this designation makes little sense as the predicament of those displaced by climate change becomes clearer day by day. Climate refugees are rendered stateless by natural disasters that are beyond their control. Their homes become uninhabitable and their basic needs for survival can no longer be met. This can make them as vulnerable as those escaping conflict zones. The systematic invalidation of the risk faced by climate refugees is not only insensitive and ungrounded, but it prevents them from accessing systems of asylum and reintegration in host countries and denies them their right to life, security, and stability.

I worked in the Reception and Placement department of a refugee integration center in Arlington, Virginia during the busiest period of civilian evacuations from Afghanistan in recent US history. From August to November this year, when evacuations were at their peak, social services departments and case workers were struggling to cope with the volume of cases. As the system went into overdrive, the deficiencies in the current process for refugee reintegration became evident. The system was continuously evolving and adapting to the challenges. But at least there was a system in place. Compare this to the United States’ treatment of the thousands of Haitian migrants who were pushed to the southern US border by a compoundment of natural disasters this year. Haiti is considered the most climate-vulnerable nation in Latin America and the Caribbean. In August 2021, an earthquake killed more than 2000 people and left about 60,000 people homeless. The nation was still reeling when Tropical Storm Grace hit the island, killing more than 1400 people and leaving more than 30,000 families homeless. When these people reached the US seeking asylum, Border Patrol agents on horseback near Del Rio, Texas attempted to corral and turn them back. In just nine days, the US executed the mass-expulsion of almost 4000 Haitian migrants, leaving them to salvage what is left of their lives from the ruins. This debacle made me wonder: clearly, there was sufficient capacity to grant asylum on humanitarian grounds? If the US could facilitate the calculated entry of refugees from Afghanistan, why couldn’t Haitians be accommodated as well? Why did they have to be turned away? If their status as climate refugees was insufficient, then even by the UNHCR’s requirement for having experienced “armed conflict and violence,” Haitians qualified for entry. Since the assassination of the President in July, Haiti has been in a state of nationwide political turmoil.
“For the last two decades, the US has administered Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to select victims of natural disasters, which allows recipients to live and work in the U.S. until their home country is deemed safe to return to. Over 200,000 recipients of TPS currently reside within the US, frequently placed in cities where the median household income falls below the poverty line. Despite displacement due to natural disaster, TPS recipients are not considered to be climate refugees or asylum seekers, as their entry into the US is predicated on the potential for return.” (UNA-NCA Policy Memo, ‘The New Great Flood: Climate Displacement and Access to Asylum’)

We need to expand our definition of what warrants our compassion. The current refugee crisis in Europe, Africa, America and the Middle East was catalyzed by a combination of conflict, political instability and poverty. All of these drivers of displacement will become more pervasive and permanent in a future defined by an unpredictable global climate. We need to reconcile with the longevity of this issue. The refugee crisis is constantly in flux, dynamic, developing in scale and context. Our response needs to be equally dynamic. It needs to be premised on the understanding that ‘home’ is soon going to become uncertain, unsafe, and unpredictable for far too many people. For so many already, home is marked by the dissonance between spatial, spiritual connection to a place and the unavoidable reality that your environment is slowly killing you. In Lahore, Pakistan, my home, the toxic, opaque air that citizens breathe and function in every day will soon become a poison. Soon, this situation will qualify as an emergency too. Very few will have the choice to leave, either because of circumstance or strong roots. But those who do leave – because they have the privilege to opt for a better life or because they are escaping a complete loss of livelihood – should be facilitated in their movement.

We need to create sustainable systems of welcome and assimilation. We cannot let in refugees only for them to experience hostility, alienation and stereotyping. The Biden administration has made important measures to reverse some exclusionary Trump-era policies on immigration, but intolerance persists in American society. The treatment of refugees in our communities requires serious introspection. None of us live in a vacuum. Most of us will experience, in some form or capacity, what it means to have our sense of home impacted by forces that are not in our control. This sense of home, of belonging, is sacrosanct. It deserves to be protected.

The benefits of expanding access to asylum to climate refugees for host countries are vast. Doing so will mitigate national security risks, propagate economic growth at state and local levels, and affirm the United States’ commitment to upholding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This starts with recognizing the status of climate refugees and the reality of their plight, then coordinating a global effort to uphold their fundamental rights.

The views expressed in this piece are those of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the views of UNA-USA.