Both arrived in New Zealand from low-lying island nations, one from Tuvalu, the other from Kiribati. Soon the couples started families, but because the parents were not citizens, their children did not qualify for citizenship under New Zealand law.

In time, as they saw their temporary visas expire and found themselves and their children facing deportation, the two couples appealed to the New Zealand court system.

What made their cases unique was that both turned to the same novel argument: that climate change is rendering their countries of origin too hazardous to return to, and that they were, therefore, refugees.

At this point their paths diverged. In 2014, a court permitted the family from Tuvalu to stay — not, however, because it had found international law compels states to offer asylum to climate refugees (or even recognizes them), but for discretionary, humanitarian reasons. The family from Kiribati, meanwhile, was deported.

The longstanding and ongoing failure of global climate policy ensures that these will not be isolated cases. Sea-level rise, desertification, hydro-meterological disasters — these and other effects of climate change will continue to push people to migrate. And those migrations are projected to happen primarily among the poorest communities, those with the fewest means to move and who least contributed to the crisis.

Framing climate refugees

The cost of a project like the Trans Mountain pipeline, therefore, should not just be measured in the billions of dollars in public money wasted.

There is much that remains unsettled in this sub-field of climate change adaptation, for instance how many people climate change will impel to migrate; from where, to where, and by when; and whether a term such as “climate refugee” is useful though it lacks a legal definition. But perhaps the most urgent matter to address was reaffirmed by those New Zealand cases: existing international refugee law does not provide a sufficient response.

That means finding other ways to respond to climate migration is a priority.

How we understand a problem — how we frame it — deeply affects how we see solutions to it. An important study that came out in 2015 identified four frames through which environmental migrants are understood:

  • victims who need to be saved or have their human rights protected by a benevolent international state system,
  • threats who need to be held back through border securitization and military responses,
  • adaptive agents who should have their barriers to movement reduced to better use migration to adapt to climate change, and
  • political subjects whose potential agency to address climate change and challenge the system driving it is curtailed by unequal global power relations.

A justice framework of climate migrations

But there’s something missing from all of these frames. Even at their best, they address only one source of the moral duties of rich countries — that is, their political and financial capacity to act — or end up shifting much of the burden of responding onto climate migrants themselves.

A fifth frame is needed, one that understands migrants as having been wronged (and thus owed some form of redress), as I argued last year in the journal Environmental Justice.

A key component of a justice framework for climate migration is recognizing that countries with high historical emissions hold duties of compensation for their disproportionate role in imposing a series of burdens on those who face pressures to move due to climate change. Those burdens include risks to human rights, risks of cultural loss, and the travails of adaptation. A climate justice framework would also consider how other historical legacies — colonialism, Cold War–era undermining of democratic regimes, neoliberal structural adjustment — constrain people’s abilities to adapt to climate change today and so create responsibilities of redress.

Ending our commitment to climate change

Canada has a number of duties that follow from that framework.

The most urgent is to reverse its position of contributing, almost maximally, to worsening climate change, of knowingly imposing climate burdens on others. Our government’s unshakable and apparently ideologically driven commitment to fossil fuels is at this point in history like seeing a crowd of people being backed toward a precipice and then dashing into them at speed; it’s a willfully reckless action unconcerned about who or how many might go over the edge or how far the plummet.

The cost of a project like the Trans Mountain pipeline, therefore, should not just be measured in the billions of dollars in public money wasted in purchasing and expanding the existing pipeline. It must also be counted in the expulsions of people who would otherwise not be impelled to move.

Fighting xenophobia

A second responsibility is to break some very resistant ground for welcoming more migrants.

In Canada, there are signs of an open and uncowed xenophobia seeping into the national conversation through some untended cracks. It’s there in the shit-memes grossly exaggerating refugee benefits. It was there in the white supremacists cheering on Doug Ford. It has opportunistically infected the misguided and vacuous politics of free speech fanatics who prove their convictions by offering platforms for alt-right speakers to exhume decayed ideas about race.

In New Zealand, a new government is considering experimenting with humanitarian climate migrant visas.

For a living, increasingly dystopic reminder of what happens when xenophobia is given political expression and power, we could look to Australia and its infamous immigrant detention centres, or to the U.S., where migrant children are being cruelly separated from parents, where those who do not survive the perilous journey into the country are dumped in mass graves, where a president speaks of migrants as “rapists” who “infest” America from “shithole countries.”

And we should not be smug in believing nothing like that can happen here — consider our own practices of detaining migrant children and keeping migrants in indefinite detention.

A duty of decency and welcome

A third responsibility, finally, is to adopt policies accepting more migrants from communities experiencing severe effects of climate change in recognition of our contribution to the crisis.

The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives published a report in 2014 on how that might be undertaken. Guy Caron, who ran last year to lead the national New Democratic Party, included provisions in his platform to recognize climate refugees and welcome them into Canada. In New Zealand, a new government is considering experimenting with humanitarian climate migrant visas.

Ideas like those are badly needed.

I’ve mentioned here before that the mass displacements in the wake of World War II dramatically expanded the understanding of the duties the world holds towards those impelled to leave their homes. Something similar needs to happen again. The United Nations Refugee Agency estimates that at the end of 2017, more than 68 million people had been forcibly displaced — one of every 110 people on earth — the highest figure in history. What’s coming this century has the capacity to make that number soar. It has never been more necessary to turn to solutions rooted in justice.