Climate Refugees (Réfugiés climatiques)

Newly translated book documents the human costs of climate change.

Collectif Argos. Climate Refugees. MIT Press 2010. ISBN 9780262514392

Reviewed by Javier Sethness

The French Collectif Argos’ 2007 volume Réfugiés climatiques (Climate Refugees) has recently been translated into English. The work, a series of essays and sets of photographs that examine the lives of a number of social groups from around the globe who have been or likely soon will be victimized by anthropogenic climate change, is the product of four years of investigation; much of it seems to have been written shortly after the publication of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) 2007 Fourth Annual Report.

The work itself is a testament to massive human-rights violations, whether past or possible future, as well as to the stunning “loss of ethnodiversity” that climate catastrophe threatens to bring about. Though much of its textual argumentation is allied to reformism, its coverage of a number of regions in which individuals are menaced by climate change—the Arctic, Bangladesh, Chad, the Maldives Islands, the Gulf Coast of the U.S., northern Germany, Tuvalu, northern China, and Nepal—is important; moreover, many of its photos are certainly worthy of reflection.

It must be stated immediately that Climate Refugees’ written reflections on the prospect of climate catastrophe are disappointingly tame, this perhaps the product of a reliance on the now-outdated climatological reports that were available when the work was written. One of the book’s introductory essays, written by Jean Jouzel, a high-ranking IPCC official, claims that, while “[s]tabilizing our climate is a huge challenge,” the world’s “political leaders deserve credit for making this issue a centrepiece of their discussions at the international level.”

Though this essay was written before the failure of the December 2009 Copenhagen climate negotiations—a “deadline,” indeed, that Jouzel identifies as “key”—it seems unjustifiable to have made such a claim at any historical point, given how inadequate has been constituted power’s response to the specter of climate change. In Collectif Argos’s account, global warming rather euphemistically constitutes the “last straw” for the impoverished of the world—not, as seems to be the case, their death-sentence.

The work, in addition, rather dramatically underestimates the possible number of climate refugees—that is, those who (will) have survived and been displaced by the effects of climate change—as being 200 million by century’s end: this, when some 20 million were displaced by unprecedented flooding in Pakistan within a matter of weeks in recent memory.

Sadly, furthermore, the already-horrifying numbers proffered by the authors regarding the recession of the Himalayan glaciers—that 2 billion people “could be affected” by what are termed “water shortages” within 50 to 100 years—also seem unjustifiably optimistic.

Somewhat strangely, indeed, the Collectif endorses a 2ºC average global temperature increase as a goal toward which to strive—that is, a more than doubling of the temperature-levels whose frightening effects they examine in the work. It should not be surprising, then, that Climate Refugees’ short appendix includes a reference to the reformist organization Greenpeace “for more information.”

Despite such drawbacks, however, much that is found in Climate Refugees is in fact quite good, in addition to being crucially important.

An Inupiaq woman residing on an island threatened by warming seas in northern Alaska is quoted as saying she has “trouble imagining a future for [herself].”

In Bangladesh, Collectif Argos demonstrates the undeniable dangers posed by rising sea levels, including the penetration of saltwater into bodies of groundwater, a development that quite simply renders-impossible agricultural production. Donatien Garnier, the author for the Bangladesh section, states that “[p]rospects for survival seem grim.”

Climate Refugees examines the life of Chadians who reside by the ever-retreating shores of Lake Chad and depend upon it. Lake Chad, of course, is a body of water that has reduced in size from 25000 km² to 2500 km² in the last 40 years; Aude Raux, the author of the article on Chad, quotes UNESCO as asserting that the fate of Lake Chad constitutes “the most spectacular example of the effects of climate change in tropical Africa.”

Climate Refugees also explores the phenomenon of outburst floods of glacial lakes in Nepal, formed through the marked retreat in recent years of the Himalayan glaciers; these outburst floods, or GLOFs, undoubtedly jeopardize the existence of underlying human populations.

Collectif Argos considers the prospect of agricultural collapse in Tuvalu, where rising saltwater has come to sterilize soils, and in northern China, a region subject to increasing desertification—said to be increasing by an astounding 2500 km² each year in the country as a whole.

Raux’s article on China at points constitutes a particularly compelling examination of migrant labor-refugees who, abandoned by capitalists and government, remind one of the masses of humanity dispossessed and proletarianized around the world with the imposition of capitalist social relations.

The work’s treatment of the expanding Gobi Desert also illustrates the general trap which capitalism has imposed on Chinese society, as on global society as a whole—to destroy itself environmentally, in addition to practically enslaving its working class, so as to promote ‘development.’

This dynamic, naturally, has surely been advanced historically by Northern industrial societies before China—as is certainly reflected in the work’s sections on New Orleans, devastated in 2005 by extreme weather, and on islands threatened by rising sea-levels in Germany’s north—but the juxtaposition of the example of northern China with the threats that warmer oceans pose to the coral that currently protects the Maldives Islands, or the disrupted climatic patterns that promote greater rates of dengue on these same islands, may be taken as commentary on the pronounced lack of solidarity among Southern societies on climate change, a dynamic already experienced at last year’s talks in Copenhagen.

Though Climate Refugees is not a work dedicated to examining possible solutions to the myriad catastrophic problems provoked by climate change, its authors at times briefly mention reasonable responses to the prospect of such. For one, a researcher with the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies is cited as advancing a rather sensible proposal for climate-refugee policy—that each of the world’s countries “transport and accommodate a quota of climate refugees” that is “proportional to its past and present greenhouse emissions.”

Garnier himself explicitly calls for the reform of the 1951 Refugee Convention to include those displaced by climate change and hopes that one day the concept of “environmental persecution” will be codified as a norm governing international relations. Garnier also mentions that Tuvalu had once planned to take the oil companies and the U.S. government to international tribunals for their disproportionate contributions to climate change, though he neither endorses nor condemns such proposals.

In essence, Climate Refugees constitutes a stark warning regarding the “endangered paradise[s]” it explores—all of them metaphors for the totality of the Earth, itself a potential paradise imperiled by climate catastrophe. In its focus on Southern peoples and marginalized Northerners, the work also certainly functions as a reminder of the unmitigated brutality and total injustice currently being enacted by the contributions of industrial-capitalist societies to anthropogenic climate change.

Of course, many of the world’s regions not examined in Climate Refugees could today be examined similarly, hopefully in fruitful fashion: the Sahel, Pakistan, Bolivia and Peru, Mozambique, Russia, and the India-Bangladesh border come to the mind of this author.

The book’s value is perhaps best encapsulated in its closing image, that of Rames Rai, a Nepalese yak-herding boy, who is shown to be running in the mountains with a large grin emblazoned on his face: it is precisely toward securing the happiness of the world’s children, and its peoples as a whole, that radical action must soon be taken to avert the various negations climate change promises to introduce into history.

Javier Sethness is a libertarian socialist and rights-advocate. He maintains the blog Notes toward an International Libertarian Eco-Socialism.

Posted in Books & Reports, Climate Change
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