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Climate refugees: towards a global, federal solution

  • Climate refugees: towards global, federal solution
    Image by Médecins Sans Frontières

About the blog

Gonzalo Delacámara
Economist. Coordinator of the Water Economy group in IMDEA Water. Academic Director of the Water Economics Forum. International consultant for several institutions of the European Union, the United Nations, the World Bank, the OECD and the IDB.

In 1915, the American poet Edgar Lee Masters published the “Anthology of Spoon River”, a collection of short poems in free verse that collectively narrates the autobiographical epitaphs of the inhabitants of Spoon River, a fictional small town in the ‘unfathomable America'. The anthology contains over two hundred characters, sharing the stories of how they lived and died. Each character narrates their own epitaph in the first person, and reflects on their own existence. Each of those brief stories reveals the truth that social conventions, the weight of tradition, of inertia, of mythical ideas, forced them to hide in life. This poetic anthology shows that there is no better way to know why we make the decisions we make, to inquire into the universal, than experiencing the emotion of the immediate.

The immediate these days has to do, among other things, with the influx of immigrants and refugees to Europe. It must be said here that this is by no means a massive influx; 85% of the world's refugees are welcomed by non-European developing countries. It is repeated incessantly in the news that Europe suffers from a refugee crisis. My feeling, rather, is that it is in fact refugees who are suffering from the crisis in Europe.

Source: UNHCR

Currently, there are approximately 70 million people forcibly displaced in the world, of which some 20 million fit into the legal status of refugees under the UNHCR, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (an additional 5.4 million Palestinian refugees are registered by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency - UNWRA). The numbers of refugees have continued to grow, and the line has been blurred between refugees fleeing wars, persecutions of all kinds, failed states with economies in ruins, situations of extreme violence and those displaced by famines, misnamed natural disasters and an unprecedented environmental degradation.

Source: UNHCR

Since 2001, 60% of those displaced escape from the same ten protracted conflicts over time: Syria (with more than 12 million displaced people, including both internally displaced persons, and asylum seekers in other countries), Colombia (still today with over 7 million internally displaced persons), Afghanistan, South Sudan, Somalia... However, the idea that a source of mass displacement will be, if it is not already, climate change is now beginning to take force.

Since 2008, an average of one person per second (up to a total of almost 300 million people) has been displaced during relevant periods of time by sudden-onset disasters, most of which were related to weather or climate extremes (droughts, floods, soil or water pollution events...). It is estimated, in fact, that the risk of this kind of displacement has doubled in the last 40 years. The average of 21.5 million people per year does not include, however, those displacements caused by the impacts of climatic phenomena of more gradual appearance. In that case there are only specific estimates: for example, in Somalia, in 2011, 1.3 million Somalis moved internally and 290,000 sought refuge outside their country in the context of an intense drought event in the Horn of Africa, which caused a famine and high degrees of instability.

Climate refugees are not climate refugees in reality, but a reflection of our obvious inability to ensure adequate governance of natural resources and common goods. The so-called natural disasters are essentially human disasters in the face of natural phenomena – they are human both in terms of the consequences as well as in terms of the causes.

Were we not able to privilege preventive approaches to reactive ones, to put the ideas of citizenship and justice way before charity, to prioritise collective will over individual fickleness, to understand the archaic nature of the idea of the nation state, to commit to a federal approach to the recognition of fundamental rights, to accept our responsibility for climate change and the weakness of our adaptation responses to it many world citizens will tell us their lives just as the inhabitants of Spoon River do.

Oak Hill Cemetery, which provided inspiration to Edgar Lee Masters for his "Anthology of Spoon River"  (Source: City of Lewistown, Illinois)

“A version of this article was originally published in Spanish on Federalistes d'Esquerres, on 03/04/2017 and on Huff Post on 09/04/2017”