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Ethical Obligations to Climate Refugees

photograph of waves threatening coastal city

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According to projections, by 2060 the lower third of Florida, home to 8 million residents, will be underwater. Within just a few decades many of Miami Beach’s landmarks will be lost. In response, some areas plan to fight rising sea levels with new infrastructure and new sea walls while other areas plan for a “managed retreat.” However, there are many more places around the world where there isn’t the money or capability to prevent homes from slipping into the water. People losing their homes to the sea means that they will need to go somewhere, and as time goes on we can expect to see a rising number of climate refugees. So, what are our ethical obligations to those being displaced?

Climate change is causing the melting of ice sheets and glaciers and the expansion of sea water. Current estimates show that sea levels are rising by 3.6 mm per year. A 2019 study projected that sea levels will rise by 69-111 cm by 2100. (In February, however, a paper in Ocean Science argued that previous projections have been conservative and that sea level rises will be higher.) What this means is that by 2100, we can expect significant threats to many areas of human habitation. In addition to Florida, which faces a number of climate challenges, Brazil, Egypt, Cameroon, China, India, and Indonesia will all face serious problems. For Bangladesh, rising sea levels represents a growing existential threat. Flooding owing to rising sea levels could result in the displacement of hundreds of millions of climate refugees. Indeed, while 2011 estimates had 187 million people potentially having to flee their homes, recent figures now project that as many as 630 million people (that is roughly 12% of Earth’s population) may be displaced.

But this is not simply a humanitarian crisis where we might feel obligated to lend a hand. The fact that the relationship between rising sea levels and climate change is generally well known changes the moral situation. Our intervention is demanded not (only) as a response to those desperately in need of help, but as a matter of justice given the harms we’re responsible for. If a nation or group of nations emits carbon, which in turn raises sea levels, and thus causes people to be displaced from their homes, surely there is an added moral dimension concerning what aid is owed to climate refugees. Given their particular contribution to the problem, what unique obligations might Western nations, for example, bear?

First, there are potential legal obligations. According to international law, people who are fleeing persecution in their country can seek to enter another. However, the current definition of “refugee” doesn’t apply to people who flee their homes because of climate displacement. Recently this controversy was addressed by the UN Human Rights Committee, who in 2020, ruled that climate migrants cannot be returned to countries where their lives might be threatened by climate change. Unfortunately, this is not binding; the issue is controversial and remains disputed. There are some who believe that the original 1951 convention on refugees should be interpreted to include those who are fleeing climate disasters. Others, like Alexander Betts and Nina Birkeland have argued against trying to redefine what it means to be a refugee because it would be impractical; renegotiating the convention would likely result in a worse deal for refugees.

Where does this leave us? According to the “conventional view” as described by Joseph Carens, states are free to exercise considerable discretionary control over the admission and exclusion of immigrants. As this is a power often considered an inherent part of what it means to be sovereign, it would seem that nations are not obligated to help climate refugees. Indeed, international libertarians argue that the only obligations that extend beyond a state’s border concern respecting other nations’ right to self-determination and refraining from harming them. (Though an important exception to this is refugees who are governed under international agreement.)

Putting aside the legal matter of potential obligations, there are those who argue that a state should provide aid and accept climate refugees if that nation has disproportionately benefited from the combustion of fossil fuels. Since many Western nations are largely responsible for the increased carbon emissions, the rising sea levels, and thus the environmental disasters that follow, it is argued that the developed world has a special responsibility not only to restrict emissions, but to protect and assist the global poor who are facing fallout from said disasters. On the other hand, there are critics who argue that historical responsibility as a justification for an obligation to assist migrants is problematic.

The polluter pays principle, for example, holds that those who pollute should bear the costs of managing the fallout. In other words, responsibility is tied to historical facts. It suggests that a nation like the United States should be obligated to aid climate refugees because of its role in causing the problem. However, there are difficulties in attributing blame in this way because of our inability to identify the specific harms done and to trace them back to specific causal factors. This complicates our ability to say that any particular nation might be obligated to accept certain refugees. There is also disagreement about how far back this kind of responsibility goes. Should a nation be held just as accountable for emissions dating back to a time when the effects of climate change were not well known? Theorists, like David Miller, have argued that emissions prior to the 1980s were not inherently harmful and so don’t count towards historical responsibility.

On the other hand, some philosophers argue that considerations of historical responsibility are beside the point; what we owe to climate refugees need not depend on establishing causality. For example, Jamie Draper argues that high-emitting states have a responsibility to climate refugees because even since the 1980s there has been a foreseeable connection between rising carbon emissions and harmful consequences of climate change. Because of this a nation like the United States can be said to be obligated to help regardless of the specifics concerning the causal relationship. These nations were well aware of the risks; they knew their emissions would generate harmful effects. Their failure to take the appropriate precautions render them a guilty party. For Draper, it isn’t a causal connection, but a failure to take due care that obligates nations to aid climate refugees.

It is to recognize that this is a problem being felt today, not merely one we must plan to confront in the future. There are already millions of people facing the prospect of fleeing their home. Addressing this problem means answering difficult questions: Does it matter who caused climate change? Should one’s ability to bear these costs be factored in? Do nations, or regions, or corporations, or individuals bear the blame? Is there such a thing as collective responsibility that we all share? Will our moral and legal frameworks catch up before it’s too late?

The California Housing Crisis and Collective Action

photograph overlooking San Francisco

The situation in California has become increasingly dire, and is even beginning to appear on the periphery of the 2020 presidential race. While there are factors that make California unique, it might be a sign of things to come for cities like Chicago, Austin, and Nashville. The political discourse currently taking shape may be indicative of the US’s future treatment of problems stemming from population growth and density.

California’s housing shortage places enormous pressure on tenants as supply shrinks and demand continues to expand. Strong economic growth, mostly in the tech sector, has created hundreds of thousands of new jobs, but has been met with inadequate construction of necessary housing. A report by the McKinsey Global Institute found that California needs to build 3.5 million more homes by 2025 to meet demand. This situation has seen the state’s home prices grow to 2.5 times the national average, while rents are 50 percent above average. As a result, nearly a quarter of the nation’s homeless population lives in California.

Current homeowners like Los Angeles resident Glenn Zweifel insist that “there is not necessarily a shortage of housing but an excess of people,” and attribute the problem to an attitude of entitlement: “Just because you want to live somewhere doesn’t mean you can.”

This, however, oversimplifies the problem. First, this is a matter of displacement; it isn’t simply a case of turning prospective residents away. Property values are skyrocketing which means that current tenants can’t earn enough to keep up with rising rents. It’s estimated that you’d need to make $34/hour in order to afford a two-bedroom rental home. Not everyone is in a privileged position to be able to uproot their lives. Tenants may not have much of a choice about where they live; their jobs, families, and financial, medical, or social situation may mean that relocation is simply not an option.

Second, the housing crisis is a byproduct of class and generational conflict. The interests of old, rich, white property owners are at odds with the young, poor, minority renters. The two main obstacles to increasing housing development are zoning laws and community opposition. Apartment buildings are banned in most of California, and single-family zoning laws prohibit higher-density housing construction in residential areas. Current residents don’t want affordable housing going up next door. They are intent on protecting the value of their assets, and know that environmental protections can be easily abused so as to protect their investment.

Conservative/libertarian writers, like Edward Ring, emphasize concerns of fairness:

“There’s a reason people work hard for decades to pay off their mortgages so they can own homes in spacious suburbs. It’s because they value the leafy, semi-rural atmosphere of an uncrowded suburban neighborhood. [Policy initiatives] will effectively double the housing density in these neighborhoods, violating the expectations of everyone living there who relied on the zoning rules that were in effect when they bought their homes.”

Property owners, they argue, have earned the right to restrict others’ access to those goods for which they have labored. To undermine that basic right of ownership and fail to reward these individuals’ hard work is manifestly unjust. And yet lawmakers continue to recommend the 

“forcible integration of people who, for whatever reason, require government assistance to support themselves, into communities of taxpayers, who, by and large, are working extra hard to pay the mortgages on overpriced homes in order to provide their children with safe neighborhoods.”

Market forces may be conspiring to put people on the street, but property owners, so the argument goes, are not the guilty party and are not obligated to make accommodations. In the end, they argue, it’s unfair to have homeowners shoulder others’ burdens.

This is a common sentiment. But the neighborhoods in California are, in effect, gated communities aimed at maximizing monetary gains and keeping out the undesirables. Even when residential communities are pried opened and new residents are admitted, those who’ve threaded the needle and somehow gained access to such a scarce resource are the very same that attempt to slam the door closed behind them. As San Francisco Assemblymember Phil Ting explains, “If you’re a city council, the people who vote for you oppose the housing you’re creating, and you’re creating housing for the people who have yet to move in. And when they do move in, they fight the next project.”

The political incentives all point in one direction. Homeowners are entrenched; they have ties in the community and their voices carry the weight of immediate political consequence. There are few other voices — certainly not the homeless or prospective residents — that might countermand it. This may change if businesses start feeling the effect of not having the necessary workers and talent to function. Being unable to attract necessary professions like nurses, teachers, janitors, and firefighters threatens to grind the economy to a halt. Property Shark notes that despite San Francisco paying nurses one of the highest wages in the US, a nurse would have to earn 10 annual incomes in order to afford a house there. The situation is no different for tech workers. But until businesses start feeling the pinch, there is more of a political incentive to protect current residents, slow development, and push the homeless to shelters elsewhere.

Conservatives are often partial to subsidiarity — the idea that actors closest to the problem are the best positioned to address it. They prefer local solutions which might limit government meddling and eliminate red tape. But the California Housing Crisis is a collective action problem; conflicts of interest between individuals encourage actors to pass the buck, while sustainable solutions require a concerted group effort. The consequences of doing one’s part to address the housing crisis encourage free-riding (that mirrors the immigration crisis at the national level). Those who flout their obligations are the ones who stand to reap the greatest rewards. Towns who haven’t built an apartment in a decade are also ones where the median home sells for $1.6 million. Given the incentives at play, a decentralized approach is unlikely to work.

There are a number of proposed solutions, but the two which have gained the most traction concern “upzoning” and rent control. SB 50 would allow apartment buildings to be built near major transit hubs, increasing housing capacity six-fold while also mitigating increased traffic congestion. It represents a market-based solution that looks to harness developer incentives in order to accelerate the development rate.

But critics contend that a market-based solution like SB 50 is unlikely to provide relief. Michael Storper, a professor of urban planning at UCLA, argues that the bill is essentially about “raising housing opportunities for highly skilled, relatively high-income people.” Upzoning may encourage more housing, but it will be housing designed to maximize the return on investment. The bill doesn’t make development in lower-income neighborhoods any more attractive or profitable. Instead, it may very well “gentrify what’s left to gentrify in highly desirable areas.” Francisco Dueñas, the housing campaign director at the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, agrees: “We think that in general, similar to what happened in Chicago, [SB 50] is just going to increase the value of that land, fueling greater speculation, and then that gets translated into increased rent and more people getting pushed out.” Ultimately, while the bill may encourage development thus increasing supply, critics worry it does nothing to address the issue of displacement.

An alternative aimed directly at this issue is rent control. (One such proposal, Proposition 10, was on the ballot in 2018 and was defeated. Another measure, AB1482 is currently gathering steam.) As property values soar and wages stagnate, renters are unable to keep up with rising prices. By placing legal limits on what landlords can demand for rent and tying those figures to cost of living calculations, these measures hope to protect renters from effectively being forced out of their residences. Renters may no longer be victims of arbitrary market forces and suffer the consequences of prices which reflect whatever the market will bear.

Critics emphasize the negative effect expanding rent control will have on housing development, as it eliminates financial incentives to build new housing or develop existing properties. Given the magnitude of the housing shortage at hand, ensuring renters remain where they are might not be the most pressing objective. Rent control creates immediate gains, but, as a Brookings Institute study concludes, “in the long run it decreases affordability, fuels gentrification, and creates negative spillovers on the surrounding neighborhood.” Reduced profit margins discourage landlords from regular maintenance, renters bunker down in apartments that are too big or small for their needs, and the neighborhood housing market is depressed.

There are no easy solutions. At best, the crisis in California is a cautionary tale that might signal when to raise the alarm, and, if we’re lucky, where to look to find a way out.

This Land Is Not Our Land

Photograph of tourists at scenic overview.

Evaluating Native American displacement from areas that are designated as protected land is not typical of tour guides or visitors to any of the United States’s 58 national parks. In fact, the origins of these hugely popular landmarks remain hidden and very few individuals understand and acknowledge this violent history. Multiple studies conducted as a part of a larger initiative called “Reclaiming Native Truth to gauge Americans understandings and attitudes towards Native American people found that only 34 percent of Americans even agree that “Native Americans face a great deal or a lot of discrimination.” With this minimal level of public understanding concerning Native Americans’ historical and modern struggles for equality, it is not surprising that individuals visit sites such as Yosemite without knowledge about the brutality behind the landscape. In a Huffington Post article, “The Forgotten History of Violent Displacement that helped Create the National Parks,” the author discusses the land of Yosemite as once being inhabited by indigenous peoples and rural poor who were forced out. If they wished to remain in their homeland, they “were forced to work humiliating jobs entertaining tourists as Indian performers.” Eventually, however, they [Native Americans] were all evicted by the national park burning down their homes. In fact, the federal government either ignored, invalidated, or simply refused to recognize the claims tribes had to ownership of lands including but not limited to Mesa Verde, the Grand Canyon, and Death Valley. Historians have only recently begun to explore the histories of forgotten indigenous peoples in these areas, and their findings have provided insight into to the romantic notions associated with the land which eventually became national parks.

Manipulated ideas about conservation and protection of the environment also played a large role in the lands later designated as national parks; however, historians such as Karl Jaccoby argue that these conservationist ideas were racially motivated: “The only way you can come in and say ‘We [the state] need to manage this space and manage the environment,’ is you have to in some ways present the current managers of it the native peoples as incompetent.” Protection of these lands from those who lived there resulted in the case of Yosemite Valley with the forced labor of indigenous people as workers in tourist attractions across the park. An article written by Hunter Oatman-Stanford discusses how over time Native Americans have been erased from U.S National Parks, for example, following the immediate usage of Natives worked at Yosemite’s hotels, concession businesses, and selling merchandise to tourists as they walked through the now paved roads of the park.

Although the history of national parks remains disturbing and unveils a plethora of ethical questions concerning the education available at these tourist hot spots about the individuals who owned this land before. It also begs the question of what individual obligations are to preserving the culture of such lands and whether visiting is an ethical decision, or if understanding the past of these coveted locations is enough to free oneself from guilt. Hunter Oatman-Stanford said it best, “Uninhabited wilderness had to be created before it could be preserved.” Understanding this concept of a fabricated wilderness created for only a sector of the American people will be critical as we move forward and advocate for more comprehensive knowledge about the true history of our national parks.