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Fear, (climate) migration and the global movement for climate justice

VICTOR BEAUME  |  15 JUNE 2019  |  ISSUE #4

New York People’s Climate March. Picture by Susan Melkisethian on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

In recent months, we have witnessed a global escalation of protests and school strikes demanding governments to take action on the man-made destruction of the planet's ecosystems. Emblematic of these legitimate and necessary forms of citizen contestation, Extinction Rebellion have successfully raised awareness in the UK and beyond about the risks of climate inaction through their widely covered actions of non-violent civil disobedience. Recently, however, some controversy surfaced on Twitter concerning their use of the term ‘mass migration’ when listing the key consequences of climate change on their website. Although the wording was since edited to the less controversial notion of ‘mass displacement’, this debate is representative of a deeper uncertainty within movements for climate justice about how to communicate about the mobility and displacement caused and impacted by climate change. Rather than reproducing long-standing discourses which portray (climate) migrants as a security threat in the era of climate catastrophe, important efforts must be made towards favouring an inclusive and justice-based approach instead.


Beyond being simply an issue of vagueness, the climate movement has been, and remains, marked by attempted ‘infiltrations’ from anti-immigrant movements and ideologies. In Belgium, Schild en Vrienden, a Flemish nationalist organisation, has simultaneously organised anti-immigrant protests and attended weekly climate marches organised by students. During one of the latter events, their leader was seen parading a sign with a map of the world highlighting ten rivers in Asia and Africa which 'provide 95% of the plastic in the sea'. The perception of people from the ‘Global South’ as threats both for the environment and from climate change in this way is not a new phenomenon. Indeed, this example is particularly revealing of what academic Betsy Hartmann calls the ‘greening of hate’ – the scapegoating of immigrants (and communities in the Global South) for environmental degradation. In fact, the 1990s brought a proliferation of conservative and neo-Malthusian arguments that ‘overpopulation’ represents an important security threat. Building upon old colonial stereotypes about ‘population explosions’ and ‘destructive cultivation practices’ of colonised people, this ‘degradation narrative’ posits that, as Hartmann puts it, 'population-pressure induced poverty makes Third World peasants degrade their environments by over-farming or over-grazing marginal lands.' According to this logic, these factors and ensuing ‘tribal conflicts’ over scarce resources would eventually push ‘masses’ to migrate towards greener pastures, where migrants (supposedly) adopt less ecological consumption patterns and contribute to an increase in CO2 emissions, further destroying the environment.


The ‘climate migrant’, generally portrayed as a ‘brown or black body’ from the Global South, then becomes an easily invoked threat that 'ties into a citizenry’s deepest fears about climate change'. This discourse marries nationalistic concerns about race and culture with an exploitation of the increasing popular worries about ecological problems, all for regressive and reactionary agendas. Extinction Rebellion has successfully used the fear of ‘extinction’ to raise awareness about climate change and the destruction of biodiversity, in the case of climate migration, however, it becomes evident that playing with fear is like playing with fire.


Picture by Susan Melkisethian on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

The further conceptualisation of climate migration as a security threat in policy considerations is indicative of how easily this sort of dangerous language can seep into mainstream discourse, particularly when media headlines focus on alarmist predictions of impending ‘mass migration’. Influential institutions such as the Council of the European Union and the US Department of Defence have explicitly defined climate change-driven conflict as 'disputes over refugees and resources', highlighting that ‘mass migration’ may cause instability in different regions. Such language which focuses on the destabilizing potential of these ‘mass disorderly movements’ inevitably narrows options to a restrictive and militarised approach, relegating the rights of those on the move to a mere afterthought. The Trump administration’s recent violent response to the arrival of central Americans at the border, some of whom have left their country due to the impacts of both slow-onset and sudden climate catastrophes, is perhaps an early example of the effects of securitizing climate migration.


In similar fashion, Hungarian president János Áder, close ally to Viktor Orbán, has also stated that strategies to fight climate change and migration need to go hand in hand. In practice, however, it seems likely that policies to decrease immigration numbers, in addition to restricting the rights of people on the move, will serve to overshadow the necessary efforts towards mitigating climate change. While the latter are often more costly and challenging politically, ‘being tough’ on (climate) migrants is perceived as an effective method to maintain stability in a shifting and uncertain world. In the US example, we see this in action with a strengthening of border control and constraining of available protections for those fleeing environmental disasters, while concurrently refusing to act to reduce emissions and other drivers of climate deregulation. Naomi Klein has called this a 'particularly brutal form of climate change adaptation', a trend that needs to be actively challenged by social movements such as Extinction Rebellion in two important ways: fighting alarmist disinformation about climate migration and building inclusive discourse rooted in justice for those most affected.


Contrary to existing as an ‘elephant in the room’ and falling prey to expedient or oversimplified campaign slogans, dynamics behind climate migration should be accurately (re)contextualised. First of all, the question of responsibility must be central to counter the persistence of the ‘greening of hate’, focusing on the global structures and inequalities causing both climate change and displacement – the unsustainable and exploitative production and consumption patterns led by multinational companies and wealthy states and citizens. While campaigns by Extinction Rebellion have been effective at conveying this part of the story, more needs to be done to resist alarmist tones of un-nuanced conceptions of ‘mass migration’. As is the case with migration more generally, the imperative is to find ways of communicating the complexity of displacement in a changing climate. The challenge is to think past uncertain predictions in order to understand climate migration as a continuum characterized by different degrees of voluntariness and duration, international but especially internal movements, as well as situations of immobility. All in all, activists and organisations within the vibrant and widely mediatised global climate movement have an important role in remaining vigilant and challenging the securitizing impulses from fears about both migration and climate change.


As a growing global movement, Extinction Rebellion is also in a position to advocate for the rights of those most affected. The challenge is not only if we respond to the challenges presented by climate deregulation, but also how we do so. Ultimately, demands for measures to protect and stand in solidarity with the most impacted individuals need to be at the core of any movement for global climate justice – fully taking into account the unequal vulnerabilities and responsibilities which are so emblematic of this present struggle. These considerations to build a truly broad-based and democratic climate movement demand that, rather than pathologize migration, we conceive of solutions where (climate) migrants are welcomed through legal pathways and adequate protection standards.  Relatedly, it is an opportunity to open up spaces for reflection about reparations for those displaced and worst affected, particularly with regards to instruments such as the UN Warsaw Mechanism for Loss and Damage which is still greatly limited in terms of funding and mandate.


Calls for climate justice solely focused on combatting coal and emissions and promoting renewables risk overlooking our duties towards the countries and communities that are the most impacted, least responsible and most disadvantaged. In parallel, to counter ambiguity, nationalist incursions and securitization is also to resist reactionary and regressive responses. The only solution is to engage the so-called ‘climate emergency’ with clarity. Mobilising transnational solidarity with those whose voices are so often left unheard should be a priority.

Victor Beaume

Victor recently graduated from the MSc in Refugee and Forced Migration Studies at the University of Oxford, where his research focused on resettlement policy and politics. Since moving back to Belgium he has been increasingly engaged in the vibrant movement for climate justice, motivating him to further explore the political and human impacts related to climate change and migration.

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