What a climate guy has to do with refugees

“You’re a climate guy – why are you jumping on the refugee bandwagon now?”

“Aren’t you instrumentalizing the refugees for your climate message?”

I was a bit shocked at these types of accusations when I brought up the topic of refugees in the context of climate at a few events recently. Initially, I didn’t think that mentioning this would cause a ruckus, but some people (who didn’t know me) didn’t see the connection and felt it was too far-fetched. I hadn’t realized that the links are not so well-known in the public eye yet.

To me, climate change has always been strongly linked to the displacement of people: In the simplest terms, it’s the people in coastal areas affected through the sea level rise. However, it goes a lot deeper. Climate change will fundamentally change our life on this planet, and with more extreme weather patterns will lead to less inhabitable and farmable land, which will change where on this planet people can live (well).

Back in 2010, when we hosted the German premiere of “The Age of Stupid” in Berlin, we invited Hermann Josef Hack, an artist who visualizes the looming climate refugee crisis if we fail to solve this challenge. I’m not concerned about climate change because of a romantic idea of a healthy planet – I’m pretty sure the planet and nature will survive whatever happens. The question is if we will survive, and how we will. Will we stick to our ideals of human rights when we are tested in tough times?

With so many people fleeing Syria at the moment, many don’t see that even in this case, climate change underlies the tragedy. For more than 4 years, a drought forced more than a million farmers to flee into the city. It has been well documented by the Washington Post in 2013, made easy-to-understand by this comic, and already in 2003 the Pentagon recognized the security and migration implications of climate change.

Once we understand this connection, I think it’s time to ask the question: What the hell is an “economic refugee” anyway?

Why do we choose to only help people fleeing from military conflict (and only if we recognize it as such) and not help people fleeing from extreme poverty or loosing their land? Island states such as the Maldives have been pretty vocal about the question of their future when their islands will disappear. How do we deal with these questions? When the inhabitable parts of the world shift, how do we justify our perceived right to the land we currently live on and our reflex to defend it against ‘intruders’?

I’m passionate about climate change because I believe it is the largest challenge we are facing, and I think it’s the calling of our generation to solve it for future generations. I’m passionate about solving the refugee crisis because it is the most urgent humanitarian crisis we face, and I believe that it is in times of crisis that we have an opportunity to prove that we really do stand by our values. These two causes are linked, and my engagement in both of them comes from caring for humans and the desire to make the most impact I can to leave behind a better world for us, humans.

anjali appadurai’s speech is the best thing to come out of the #cop17 UN climate change conference in durban, not counting the ever-inspiring COY.

of course, most media channels are eager to cover ‘both sides’ and tell the story of those that call this ‘agreed outcome with legal force’ a success or a ‘historic deal to save the planet’. the problem is, that it’s not a success. reaching an agreement in the wee hours may feel like a successful end of the day, but in the big picture, this agreement was an utter failure for the future of our species. it’s increasingly difficult to imagine that we won’t look back on these times as the age of stupid.

kyoto revisited

essentially, what we have on the table is a new commitment period for the kyoto protocol (KP), the decision to establish a green climate fund to deal with the consequences of climate change (adaptation) without a clear strategy for its funding, and an agreement to continue talking about a legally binding treaty and hopefully settle by 2015 (and not 2020, as proposed by the US).

celebrating this as a success is reinterpreting the kyoto protocol. KP’s success was that it was the first international agreement of this kind. however its target of reducing emissions by 5.2% from 1990 levels by the year 2012 is not ambitious. admittedly, emissions would have kept on rising so 5.2% is more ambitious that it initially sounds. however, the deindustrialization in post-soviet systems after the 1990 led to an emissions reduction that had already taken place by the time KP was negotiated. not accounting for this created approx. 8-12 billion carbon credits (1 credit = 1 ton of CO2) worth absolutely nothing – usually referred to as ’hot air’ because this reduction happened an. to put this amount of ‘hot air’ into perspective, the entire world’s emissions were just below 30 billion (2008). there are other examples of KP’s measures gone awry, such as HFC-23 projects accounting for more than half of the CDM credits. finally, the underlying logic of creating a market, applauded by economists, brought the wrong people to the table: greedy banksters who turned most of michelle chan’s ’ten ways to game the carbon market’ warnings into reality, most notably the carousel fraud in the EU ETS.

so we shouldn’t be euphoric about the result that we’ll have a second commitment period of KP. perhaps it’s better than nothing, but it’s not much. it’s certainly not what science tells us we need to do, which is to get back to 350ppm of atmospheric carbon. we’re still on the path towards a 3-4 degree warmer world, which is where we might trigger runaway climate change. some argue, this agreement lock us in on this path, leaving ‘no room for increasing the depth of carbon cuts.’

common but differentiated responsibility

during the final showdown, the EU, india and china made passionate pledges for their positions. analyzing the diplomatic negotiations would go beyond my expertise, but i have a few opinions:

– it is absolutely critical that we have a legally binding treaty on climate change that includes developing nations. they need to develop, but they shouldn’t make our mistakes all over again, we don’t have the time or the resources for more mistakes.

– that said, it’s even more important that we uphold the principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibility’ (CBDR). we need a fair deal that allows countries to develop. climate policy mustn’t be used as economic hitman policy, and we need stop the bullying immediately (salerno’s fierce response after standing on the table when she was being ignored).

– the reason why the EU/US should take on a larger role in fighting climate change is plainly because it’s the ‘developed’ world that caused the problem, not china or india. scroll down this guardian article to see the list of historical emissions, in total and per capita. how dare we put this pressure on a country with a GDP per capita of approx. $1400 (US: $47,000 | EU: $32.000) that currently emits 1.4t per capita (US: 17.5t | EU: 10.5t)?

– an aspect i find too often overlooked is the outsourcing of emissions to developing nations. indeed, china is the world’s largest polluter in total figures, but it’s also the world’s factory. it’s producing for our consumption, something easily forgotten ever since china passed the US in total emissions when the media’s tone in describing china’s carbon emissions has become quite reproachful. however, they’re only consuming 3.1t per capita (india: 1.8t) while the US is consuming 29t! there’s an interesting list on the bottom of the guardian article.

future of the climate movement

so, as our political leaders have failed us yet again in the most important issue humanity has ever faced, where do we go from here? 2011 has shown the willingness of people to take their fate into their own hands (arab spring, spanish indignados, keystone XL protests, occupy wall street and everywhere), which is a very hopeful development for the future of humanity. for now, i’d like to end with kumi naidoo’s words:

do not accept when any of us say to you that young people are the leaders of tomorrow. you have to say ‘young people are the leaders of today, we are ready to lead now!’ and if adults are not prepared to provide the leadership, you should challenge us to get out of the way and you have to step up forward and bring a new vision.

[UPDATE: check out’s coverage on the activist movement in durban]

dominik wind, berlin activist & thinker, participated in a panel at the influencer conference the other week, and this blog post pretty much summarizes the panel. you should really read it, especially for the researched facts.

There´s no better way to sum this up then Ronen Kadushin, who developed the open design concept, did at the panel: “We´re pretty much fucked.” Dave Pollard wrote: “We have unleashed the sixth great extinction of life on Earth […]. We have created a political and economic industrial growth civilization monoculture that is unsustainable, out of control and unstoppable. I´m a hopeless optimist so of course I can´t take “unstoppable” although reading through my research I´d agree on “probably unstoppable”.
The only quite utopian option I can think of is that a majority of us understands:
Industrialism and consumerism are the reason for, not the solution of, the problem. The technocratic promise of “inventing our way out of the problem” is proven wrong by the sheer numbers and statistics. It brought us here. We CAN´T have more cars, more traveling, cheaper clothes AND our planet. It´s time to act, the window of time left to act is closing.

yes, it sounds alarmist, but he has a bunch of figures to back it up. i pretty much agree with him that we are living in critical times. and perhaps all we can do at this point is damage control. we’ve heard about runaway climate change, and that virtually all scientists agree on what’s happening. in the US, activists are fighting keystone XL, and in mckibben’s words, if they fail, it’s ’game over for the climate’. we’ve even been told that our time will be coined ’the age of stupid’.

so, where do we go from here? i do fear it might be too big of a problem. it seems like people need to personally feel the effects of something before starting to act. however, we might not have the luxury for trial-and-error; the error might set us back too far. perhaps there’s no other way than to run everything into the ground, and start all over again with what’s left. reset. perhaps sustainability is something that our current society just wasn’t built for. perhaps from a greater perspective, sustainability means that the natural system will get rid of the destructive factor: mankind.

on the other hand, perhaps damage control can significantly us slow down before the crash, so we might be able to survive. but we need to turn the steering wheel hard, now. we have to go back to the drawing board and create systems that are not based on unlimited economic growth. i think we need to act and communicate with a high level of urgency (similar this dylan ratigan or howard beale), and get shit done. anyway, there’s no reason not to try it. nothing that’s worthwhile is ever easy. and who would like to be involved in anything less than saving the world?

i’m looking forward to meeting dominik again to figure out some solutions. and he’s not as gloomy as it might appear from the excerpt. after all his blog is subtitled ’replace fear of the unknown with curiosity.’