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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?

Transactionalism in U.S. Foreign Policy

image of world map with flags indiciating national boundaries

Since House Speaker Pelosi announced the start of the formal impeachment inquiry in the light of the new allegations against President Trump, the news cycle has seen abundant questions about the likelihood of impeachment, details of the process, and questioning whether there is a basis for the impeachment. The reasons for the start of the proceeding was a controversial call with Ukrainian President Zelinsky during which the president conditioned U.S. aid to Ukraine upon information about presidential candidate Biden and his son. As a result, Trump has been accused of engaging in a quid pro quo agreement, as he asked a foreign government to investigate a political rival. Yet, what goes easily unnoticed is the shift from humanitarianism to transactionalism in U.S. foreign policy that appears as a consequence of President Trump’s actions. Making U.S. foreign aid straightforwardly contingent upon political gains represents a sharp shift in the U.S. foreign policy doctrine. What are the consequences of this transactional approach?

Transactionalism is defined by Nikolas Gvosdev as “an effort to shift the basis of U.S. engagement and to define a series of quid pro quos for U.S. involvement.” This approach is meant to put tangible benefits above abstract values, and thus represents a transformation in the way the U.S. approaches assistance and aid. Until now, the U.S. has most commonly used humanitarian pretext to justify aid, but the current administration has indicated that it is not willing to continue the practice as it sees aid and financial assistance as a political tool instead.

There are several ethical questions raised by the U.S.’s new transactional approach:

First, is it morally permissible to prioritize aid to allies rather than to those who truly need it? If humans are suffering and we need to react instantly, is it morally acceptable to turn our backs on countries who do not share our values and ideologies? What obligation do we have to donate funds to causes which might frustrate our interests? Consider President Trump’s justification for constraining aid when Hurricane Dorian threatened Puerto Rico. Trump’s claim that “Puerto Rico is one of the most corrupt places on earth” was meant to justify a lack of willingness to approve further funding needed to rebuild. Is the potential misuse of federal funds, as the president has claimed, a morally justifiable reason to deny further assistance?

Second, the transactional approach has the potential of leading to crises across the globe, bringing us back to the pre-UN world order. U.S. foreign policy appears to be putting aside its long-held belief that, alongside military action, it ought to promote its values across the world and cherish alliances based on a common vision of the world. But if diplomacy turns transactional, we risk the well-established world order by prioritizing relationships of benefit.  Just recently, the U.S. changed its approach toward Syria, as President Trump decided to withdraw U.S. troops and abandon Kurdish allies. In doing so, President Trump articulated a new vision for policy based on national interest and likelihood of victory, rather than the protection of hard-won allegiances. This shift led many of the President’s supporters to openly criticize the fact that he abandoned Kurdish people who have been paramount for U.S. efforts in Syria.

Third, does the U.S. have a responsibility to the global community as its leader? This question continues to trouble academics and policymakers alike as they try to decipher what role the U.S. should play on the world stage, especially in light of the rise of other great powers. If the leader of the free world is seen as conducting foreign affairs on a quid pro quo basis, what message does this send to the rest of the world?

The ongoing conversation regarding the president’s request that a foreign power intervene in domestic politics needs to center on more than just talk about the breaking of norms and statues. Democratic interference is a real worry with its own moral concerns and weight, but just as pressing is the question about the U.S.’s foreign policy transformation and the U.S.’s shifting role in global politics. The Trump-Ukraine scandal merely marks the most recent, noteworthy event in the movement of U.S. policy from participatory to more self-interested. We should not overlook this shift in the U.S. foreign policy doctrine towards transactionalism, a shift that might have grave consequences for the U.S. as well as the larger political world.

On Syria: Humanitarian Aid

The United States and Russia announced on February 11 a “cessation of hostilities” in Syria. The plan includes increased humanitarian aid, in addition to the ceasing of hostilities, and does not include ISIS or the Nursa front as they are both UN-recognized terrorist organizations. The plan, if executed as announced, will be the first formally declared end to fighting in Syria since 2011. While the plan is a step forward in stopping the five-year conflict, is this humanitarian aid and tentative cessation really enough?

Continue reading “On Syria: Humanitarian Aid”