By Jack Karsten, PISA Staff Assistant
On Monday, April 6th PISA screened the film Climate Refugees at the Elliott School of International Affairs. The 2010 documentary tells the story of individuals around the world who are forced to leave their homes and their countries due to gradual environmental degradation or sudden calamities. The film crew travelled diverse countries from Bangladesh to Tuvalu to highlight the immediate threats that changing climate patterns pose to residents of low-lying islands and coastal regions. The documentary also featured interviews with leading scientists and politicians who are grappling with how to best respond to these threats. By focusing on the human experience, Climate Refugees questions whether the world is prepared to handle mass migrations of people escaping local climate change impacts.
The film also places climate migration in a historical context. Humans have migrated to seek more comfortable environments for thousands of years, and only the relatively recent establishment of international borders has made that migration much more complex. In the past, entire civilizations have disappeared from sudden changes in resource availability. Reconciling the idea of a nation state and sovereignty with the historical mobility of human populations could prove difficult moving forward. Can the resettled residents of an island country still claim a nationality in a land engulfed by rising oceans? The film raised many probing questions along this line about the future of human civilization, culture and national identity in the face of extreme climate events.
Following the screening, PISA invited GW Law Professor Dinah L. Shelton to offer her perspective on the climate refugee issue in a discussion with the audience. Professor Shelton is an expert in international human rights law, having authored several prize-winning books on the subject and having served on the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The discussion began with Professor Shelton recounting her own experience with climate-related natural disaster, when she lost her home to a wildfire in drought-prone California. While the damage was covered by insurance, the story highlighted the wide disparity in vulnerability among wealthy and poorer communities. While richer countries produce the most carbon emissions, the burden of their effects will be felt most heavily by developing nations that contribute much fewer carbon emissions and cannot afford adequate disaster relief.
Questions of humanitarian law permeated both the film and the following discussion. According to survey responses collected from participants before the event, giving refugee status to populations displaced by environmental factors is a contentious proposition. If droughts or floods make leaving one’s country a matter of life and death, the decision to leave is not all that different from that of a political asylum seeker. However, in expanding the definition of refugee status beyond political persecution, it becomes difficult to draw a line for where that protection ends. Refugees fleeing from armed conflict already stretch neighboring countries’ public services, and giving refugee status to climate migrants would only further strain humanitarian resources. Balancing ideal legal protections with humanitarian response capability may be the biggest challenge faced by the international community in addressing the plight of climate refugees.
Though the situation described by the film appears bleak, there were some positive developments mentioned in the post-film discussion. Insurance companies around the world have sponsored research in an effort to better estimate their liabilities for related property damages. Micro-insurance is also an increasingly popular tool for covering natural disaster damage in developing nations. In addition, communities affected by climate change have filed lawsuits to assert the idea of environmental protection as a human right. These combined efforts could raise awareness about climate refugees and spark new lasting solutions from the international community. While the overall environmental impacts of rising temperatures may seem abstract, its human cost could galvanize much needed action.