Climate, capitalism and refugees

July 1, 2016


Tacloban, Leyte, Philippines, after Typhoon Haiyan in 2013. Photo: Tony Iltis.

Millions of people fleeing storms that flood major cities within hours, or intense fires that burn towns to the ground — welcome to a climate change apocalypse. It is not a scene from science fiction film, but a fast approaching reality.

In May this year we got a trailer. Wildfires in unseasonally hot conditions swept through Alberta, Canada, and hit Fort McMurray. The largest wildfire evacuation in Alberta history ensued as people fled south to Edmonton. Up to 90% of Fort McMurray was destroyed by the fire.

Fort McMurray is home to the Alberta tar sands, one of the most climate-damaging projects on the planet. Perhaps Mother Nature was sending a message when it forced operations to close. But, instead of taking this as a warning, fossil fuel companies were back to full production in 13 days.

It will take the people of Fort McMurray much longer to recover.

A tale of two cities

In August 2005 Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. Flooding affected 80% of the city, making parts of the city uninhabitable and forcing hundreds of thousands of people to leave their homes.

The poor Black areas of the city were hit worst. Many people were unable to evacuate and were forced to climb onto their roofs or shelter in the Superdome.

Those who tried to flee the Black suburbs of New Orleans through the mostly white middle class suburb of Gretna were met with barricades and armed police forcing them back. Trapped in downtown New Orleans, many went several days without food, water and shelter.

The response when Hurricane Sandy hit New York in 2012 is telling. The day after the storm, the National Guard were rescuing people, providing medical aid and handing out food and water. Within six days of the storm Manhattan was a buzzing metropolis again.

More than a million people were displaced from New Orleans, compared with 100,000 in New York. The death toll in New Orleans was close to 2000 and about 100 in New York.

Hurricanes do not recognise skin colour or class, but the emergency response does. The contrast in disaster relief provided to a predominantly poor black city compared with the centre of corporate America is stark. And this is in a First World country.

My island home

The Philippines is an area most at risk from climate change. It was hit by the full force of Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, affecting 14 million people. Thousands died, more than a million people were displaced and at least 600,000 of them are still homeless, years later.

Large parts of the Philippines and other island nations, such as Kiribati, Tuvalu and the Maldives, are expected to become uninhabitable due to rising sea levels, caused by climate change.

Already the Carteret Islands, off the coast of PNG, are fast becoming uninhabitable. Temporary sea walls have been washed out to sea, crops have been claimed by rising tides and the islanders are now being resettled in Bougainville as they watch their homeland submerge before their eyes.

The people of the Carteret Islands have never had electricity. They are among the lowest contributors to climate change in the world. Australia, the highest emitter of carbon emissions per capita, has refused all requests for aid and relocation to Australia.

The few thousand forced to leave their island homes is only the beginning: 30 to 50 million people living in coastal regions in Bangladesh will be forced to abandon their homes by 2050 due to rising sea levels. Most will move into already over-populated and under-resourced urban areas, like Dhaka, where 40% of the population lives in slums.

According to the Environmental Justice Foundation, 150 million people will be forced to leave their homes because of climate change by 2050.

Australia is planning for this worldwide crisis, not by investing in climate change mitigation infrastructure, but by spending billions on offshore detention centres designed to deter people from coming to Australia.

A climate of conflict

Climate change, apart from making places uninhabitable can also be the cause of conflicts. The International Panel on Climate Change has warned it will lead to conflicts over scarce water and food.

This can be seen in Syria, where a major drought from 2006 forced 1.5 million farmers to leave their farms and move into cities where resources were already stretched. The lack of food and growing unemployment played a significant part in the 2011 uprisings. Within a few years it has led to one of the world's largest refugee crises.

Fortress Europe has been the response — from deploying military ships to stop asylum seeker boats reaching European shores, to forcing those that do make the journey to live in horrid conditions in refugee camps, often with little more than a flimsy tent to protect against freezing and wet conditions. The European Union has now signed a deal with Turkey to allow the deportation of asylum seekers from Greece. It has been dubbed the pact of shame and condemned by the UNHCR.

Climate apartheid and climate justice

The world's poorest are hit the hardest by climate change. They lack the resources to cope with weather events such as Typhoon Haiyan, or to flee areas that become uninhabitable.

The world's elite will go to any length to protect their power and wealth — the wealth that was created by exploiting the Third World and burning insane amounts of the fossil fuels that are causing climate change. This is climate apartheid manifested by capitalism — a system that will destroy as many lives and ecosystems as it takes to maintain the power and wealth of a few.

Climate justice movements can provide a starting point to transform this system. At the People's Climate Summit in Bolivia in 2014, solutions were put forward, including First World countries engaging in technology transfers and accepting climate refugees.

In the lead up to the Paris Climate Summit last December, 350.org released a statement called “Why climate activists stand with refugees”, which called on people involved in both struggles to unite.

Canadian environmental and social movements are uniting around the recently launched Leap Manifesto, which lays out a plan to immediately transition away from fossil fuels and calls on Canada, as one of the world's primary contributors to climate change, to welcome all refugees and migrants.

A decade on from Hurricane Katrina, the Black Lives Matter movement has exploded in the US as a challenge to the country's racism and class structure. It is common to see Black Lives Matter contingents at climate marches in the US, highlighting the fact that Black people are being disproportionately affected by climate change.

In Europe, people across the continent are going out of their way to help asylum seekers, rescuing them at sea and providing food and shelter when they reach shore.

In Australia the refugee movement is growing, inspired by the heroic protests in offshore detention centres and the Let Them Stay campaign this year. A recent poll by the Australia Institute shows that most Australians now believe refugees should be let into the country.

Unifying refugee and climate movements is a core element of climate justice.

Climate justice at its core is a struggle to break the power of the corporate elite and defeat climate apartheid. In doing this we can give ourselves a fighting chance to transition to a world run the by the people for the people.

Photos: The aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan by Tony Iltis.

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