“We are not educated people, but I can sense something grave is happening around us. I couldn’t believe my eyes – the land that I had tilled for years, that fed me and my family for generations, has vanished’, recounts Tulsi Khara, 70, lifelong resident of the Sundarbans region in India. ‘Displacement and death are everywhere here. The land is shrinking’.
Whilst those of us in the UK bask in our June heatwave, unable to hear climate warnings over the noise of our sun worshipping bacchanals, the situation is fractionally more urgent in regions like The Sundarbans, a mangrove forest on the delta of the Ganges and the Brahmaputra. Here, the sea advances by 200 yards a year, with coastal erosion, floods, salinity ingression, and increasingly violent storms accomplishing more than rediverting the odd National Trust coast path. In 1996, the Sundarbans island of Lohachara became the first inhabited island in the world to be submerged by the sea, with its inhabitants labelled the world’s first climate refugees.
So, what is a climate refugee?
The term ‘climate refugee’ may have become ubiquitous shorthand for the entire issue of climate linked migration, but its definition is markedly slippery. A 2018 World Bank report estimated that by 2050, there would be 143 million climate change driven migrants from the regions of Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia alone. Legally designated ‘climate refugees’, however? Zero. Neither the United Nations nor any other international agency recognises any such specific criteria. Debating the semantics of movement might seem self-indulgent when discussing the future of the planet and its people, but the implications of linguistic nuance on a global scale can be far reaching.
The palpably political charge of the term ‘refugee’ certainly communicates the urgency of the climate situation — ecosystems around the world are in such unprecedented flux that many people don’t recognize the places they once called home. Not in a “Eurgh! Another cereal café has opened in Shoreditch’ way, but more ‘my island is only a few feet above sea level, and I am witnessing its inevitable submersion'. Yet the discourse that surrounds refugees has perennially been weaponized into a rationale for border walls and military action, with ideas of mass displacement of people used to incite nationalistic protectionism. Alex Randall, coordinator of the Climate and Migration Coalition, writes that ‘Governments often fail to understand that people will migrate, even if a safe, legal option doesn’t exist…they can either facilitate safe, legal migration, or can attempt to stop people moving and create crises’. As evident in the burgeoning humanitarian crisis at the U.S- Mexico border, when the need for migration is dire enough, people will risk a cage.
Out of Sight, Out of Mind?
It’s easy to write of the rapid submersion of regions like the Indian Sundarbans in elegiac terms of inevitability, aestheticizing it as a far-flung, quasi-Venetian sinkhole and thereby compartmentalizing it as a very foreign tragedy. Yet for the villagers of Fairbourne, in northern Wales, issues of climate migration are literally at their doorstep; the rising tide is threatening the coastal village, and Fairbourne's inhabitants could become Britain’s first climate refugees. An official report has called for Fairbourne to be ‘decommissioned’ in 2045; 'decomissioned’, in this case, a bureaucratic euphemism for the sanctioned breach of Fairbourne's sea walls and, presumably, the planned appeasement of the sea gods for the hubris of humanity’s attempt to control the waves.
Angela Thomson, a Fairbourne resident, emphasised that the town feels ‘uncomfortable being called the first climate refugee village’ Instead, she asserts, ‘what we want is answers. We want to know if the seawall breaches before 2045, what’s going to happen to us, where are the Welsh government and Westminster going to put us?
Indeed, the extent of government accountability in the climate refugee situation is hotly debated. The 2015 Paris Agreement included a clause, lobbied for by a coalition of the world’s least developed countries, which mandates global compensation for the ‘loss and damage’ caused by climate change. The dialectic of what the developed world ‘owes’ those most affected by climate change is alarmingly prescient given the report given by U.N. special rapporteur Philip Alston, which predicts that ‘human rights might not survive the coming upheaval’ and warning of a ‘climate apartheid’, between displacer and displaced, where richer countries will expect to buy themselves out of the coming storm. 'The poorest half of the world's population—3.5 billion people—is responsible for just 10 percent of carbon emissions, while the richest 10 percent are responsible for a full half," writes Alston. 'A person in the wealthiest 1 percent uses 175 times more carbon than one in the bottom 10 percent.'
In the week where Sir David Attenborough predicted that polluting the planet will become as morally abhorrent as slavery, it seems as good a time as any to ruminate on the question of personal and national accountability. Famously a modern economic nation built on the coal-fuelled Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th century, the question of 'Who started it?' is an uncomfortable one, and Attenborough argued that the UK must act as vanguard in the global fight to diminish climate disaster: 'If we're now taking a lead in solving the problem, that's only right and responsible'. Describing how increased youth engagement with climate change was 'a great hope to me', the onus seems to be on us, the young and beautiful, to make our David proud, and help end the disassociation between the sustainability of our own lifestyles and the ever diminishing barrier between regions like The Sundarbans and the ravening waves.