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How We Talk About "Climate Refugees" and Why It's Complicated

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"MALDIVES – Using hand signals and whiteboards to communicate, President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives held a Cabinet meeting underwater in 2009."

Nasheed's watery stunt came just months before the 2009 UN climate summit in Copenhagen, which ultimately failed to create any sound policy on climate change or sea level rise. The Maldives, a collection of islands in the Indian Ocean less than 6 feet above sea level, are precariously perched on the front line of climate change because they are likely to be the first country to be entirely consumed due to rising sea levels and continuing carbon emissions. Thus the small island nation is particularly vulnerable to how international institutions like the UN address (or fail to address) climate change.

President Nasheed, at the underwater press conference before the summit, was asked what would happen if it failed. "We are going to die," he replied.

As rising seas begin to consume these low-lying islands, international concerns about so-called "climate refugees" are going to become a pressing issue. Rising seas will eventually inundate the homes of hundreds of thousands of native islanders in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, displacing them within their nation or forcing them to migrate to other countries. In a testimony to the Environmental Justice Foundation about reducing carbon emissions, President Nasheed said people in his country did not want to "trade a paradise for a climate refugee camp."

Governments of these small island nations like the Maldives often intentionally position themselves as victims to draw international media attention. The image of refugee camps, eroded homes, and underwater cabinet meetings can illicit a strong media response, but new research shows that this vulnerability and how the media sensationalizes it can be hurtful and problematic too.

A 2012 study published by Carol Farbotko from the University of Wollongong, Australia, and Heather Lazrus of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado demonstrates how these climate refugee stories capitalize on racial and class fears, culturally ignorant stereotypes, and, ultimately, redirects the discussion away from the root of the problem -- continuing emissions.

The image of the islanders as victims is a commodity which is used to provide news value and score political points. Using climate refugees as a hook is along the same lines as using stranded polar bears on icebergs, ravaged old-growth forests, and disappearing glaciers, except now the victims can speak directly to us.

Stories and images in western media create what's called the dominant narrative of how we think sea level rise will affect low-lying islands. The narrative creates a single story that in turn creates a stereotype, usually depicting Indo-Pacific islanders as inevitable victims of environmental disaster. These narratives are important because they shape the way we as a society identifies problems, decide who we think is to blame, and come up with the solutions that are socially acceptable.

Where does the term "climate refugee" come from?

Coined in 2007 in the book Climate Refugees, the term "climate refugees" was originally meant to challenge the restrictive definition of the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees in Geneva. The Convention had adopted a definition that says a refugee is a person with a "well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion" who resides "outside the country of his nationality and is unable or...unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country." This legal definition emphasizes that refugees must be forced, by social or political drivers, to cross a national border. Displacement within countries by environmental drivers, however, has no recognition under international law.

What's wrong with using the term climate refugee?

The word "refugee" evokes images of suffering, helplessness, and a loss of dignity. When asked about the term, an islander quoted in Farbotko's study said "It devalues your feelings as a human being. It makes you feel small and negative about yourself. And it doesn't make you fully human. Who has the right to deny me the joy of feeling human? We are born equal and we should be treated equally."

A second problem is that the term is misleading and draws attention away from the multiple intersecting forces that would cause a person to leave their home, focusing the blame only on the environment.

In reaction to the term "refugee," countries may too easily jump to change immigration policies, forgetting that with sea level rise, environmental disaster is not the only driver of migration. While rising sea levels may eventually erode away the foundation of a coastal house, the loss of one's house alone is not enough to make a person migrate to another country. Push-pull factors, like more jobs and education might attract islanders to foreign countries, or in the worst cases political instability, violent conflict, poverty, and corruption in the deteriorating country might forcefully drive them to emigrate. In these cases, there are political and social barriers that make people suffer, not just environmental drivers.

It's true that using the term "climate refugee" is good for raising public awareness, but for the sake of completeness and the recognition of human rights we need to get the terminology correct. Although it sounds less striking, using "environmental migrants" is one better option.

What's the problem with the dominant discourse of climate refugees?

Farbotko and Lazrus's research shows that the ways in which we talk about climate refugees is problematic for many reasons, but one of the clearest drawbacks is that in many cases the media's dominant narrative ignores islander's history and culture.

Especially when we are talking about Polynesian islands, the story westerners hear leaves out the fact islanders have traditionally been migrant seafarers and assumes that the ocean is something to be feared and fought. In Polynesian histories, migration itself isn't a bad thing. Islanders embrace migration in a way that is very distinct from the notion of "fleeing refugees." Groups have frequently sailed between islands, leaving some and recolonizing others throughout their history. Mobility brings their culture together. Therefore, it is not sea level rise itself that is the threat to how islanders imagine their future, but how sea level rise is framed and governed.
Indeed, in the case of Indo-Pacific Islanders, we may have to consider mobility as potentially part of the solution rather than the inherent problem.

It is true that climate change will bring on an enormous amount of environmental, political, and social adversity. It is important that for the people who follow the simple, dominant narrative of becoming climate refugees that we address the needs of these people. But there will be people who follow other stories, different stories, and it is just as important to talk about them and address those adversities too. The diversity of problems means that we will need a diversity of solutions.

What should we do?

The most important thing to do now is to notice, question, and change they way we talk about environmental migrants. This means we have to tell other stories, respect the dignity, cultural heritage, and rights as global citizens of people who will be affected most heavily by climate change. We must not assume that they are inevitable victims, but rather active agents in their own solutions.