Your Island Sinking? Go to Canada
Today's United Nations climate summit is a reminder that rich countries still aren't ready to make deep cuts to their carbon emissions or make significant payments to help poor countries cope with the consequences of those emissions. Which raises the question: For countries that want to be good global citizens, is there a third option?
How about giving the people displaced by climate change somewhere else to live?
There's no obligation under international law to provide asylum to those whose homes are rendered unlivable by rising sea levels, crop failure, severe storms or other consequences of climate change. The 1951 Geneva Convention recognizes as refugees only those who leave their home country out of fear of persecution; anyone who leaves for another reason is a migrant. Refugees are entitled to settlement in other countries; migrants aren't.
Climate change challenges the logic of that distinction, spurring calls to update the 1951 convention or create new agreements. Those efforts may eventually lead somewhere, but there's nothing stopping wealthy countries from acting on their own. In June, New Zealand approved an asylum request by a family from Tuvalu, partly on the grounds that climate change had left the family's children "vulnerable to natural disasters."
It's possible that other countries' refugee courts will follow a similar course with individual cases. But that's a slow and uncertain process, and there's no need to wait. Countries such as Australia, Canada and the U.S. could unilaterally announce new policies to treat those displaced by climate change as a new category of refugee. Or they could enter into bilateral agreements with some of the hardest-hit countries for larger-scale resettlement.
Why should developed countries care if people in Tuvalu are forced from their homes? Take my home country of Canada: If we had never emitted a single gram of carbon dioxide, sea levels would still be rising almost as quickly. Why should we have to bear the cost of settling people with the bad luck to live on a sinking island?
The rebuttal is that Canada's wealth derives in great part from selling the fossil fuels that are causing Tuvalu to sink. Partly as a result, Canada became the only country in the world to legally withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol, and has shown no particular interest in creating a replacement. And Canada emits more carbon per person than any large industrialized country save for Australia and the U.S.
So Canadians, who according to one account enjoy the richest middle class in the world, have made money from an activity that disproportionately hurts others, and stymied efforts to curb that activity. The country also has space, resources and a history of incorporating newcomers into its social and political fabric -- and not least, an aging population that needs new workers. The same could be said, to varying degrees, for many other developed countries.
None of that is particularly in dispute -- yet wealthier countries have yet to offer to help resettle those forced to flee their homes because of climate. One reason may be that doing so feels uncomfortably close to acknowledging culpability in their plight. Another is fear that recognizing such a category of migrants would open the door to a flood of claims, especially as the effects of climate change accelerate.
If rich countries would rather not invite in climate migrants, they can start by contributing money to the Green Climate Fund, whose goals include protecting people from extreme weather. The UN hopes the summit will produce commitments of $10 billion to $15 billion for the fund. So far, only Germany has made a significant contribution. The U.S. has said it won't be giving.
The fund is important because the most significant ethical objection to creating a new class of refugees for climate change isn't that it inconveniences the host countries. It's that most people would prefer not to leave their homes in the first place. If developed countries can't be bothered to help with that problem, the least they can do is open their doors.
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Christopher Flavelle at firstname.lastname@example.org
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