TWIST: the climate refugee is our future


Welcome to the second post on “This Week in Sustainable Transitions” or TWIST a new weekly post which covers one topic in the news involving sustainable transitions and climate change.

This week the news featured both World Refugee Day and the separation of families at the border in the United States- putting immigration into the front and center stage. So this week’s TWIST is focused on climate change and refugees.

A week of gripping photos, tragic stories, and haunting audio has given many journalists and bloggers who write on climate change something to think about- mainly if we are expecting a lot more refugees in the future due to climate change, what will happen to those refugees? Will they be denied entry? Will they too be separated from their family members?

Some of the refugees affected by the family separation policy in the U.S. could be classified as climate refugees. There are often many push factors for migrants, and violence and climate change are often related so that it is difficult to point to climate change alone as the sole factor leading to migration. However, many of the refugees coming into the U.S. are from countries that have experienced food insecurity due to a decade of drought followed by heavy rains.

Worryingly, even though people are uprooted by climate-related catastrophes even year, climate refugees have no real protection under international law and there is no international consensus on how to handle them. There were arguments this week that the way the U.S. is currently dealing with refugees is a sign of what will come with climate change. Some are even calling abolishing ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) an important step for dealing with future migration due to climate change.

However, climate refugees don’t only come from abroad. There are communities within the U.S. which are under serious threat from climate change. One only needs to check the news to see that there are many types of disasters within the country, everything from fires to hurricanes, which also spark climate refugees. Some are calling on cities within the country to make plans to cope with climate refugees as cities are often a leading destination for them. Lest you think that you will be safe simply because are a citizen, let it be a warning that the U.S. has a history of turning back Americans dealing with disasters.

We need to learn how to deal with refugees now, with compassion and with dignity. We need plans for how to house them, feed them, and help them adjust to their new lives. And we need all of this before climate change gets worse and we start receiving more refugees.