Anti-Immigrant Populism & Climate Change Denial

An Unstable Combination

By Professor Steve Vanderheiden (University of Colorado)

January 15, 2017         Picture: Jorge Duenes/Reuters.

This article is part of The Critique’s January/February 2017 Issue “Stick It To The Man: A Year Of Anglo-American Populist Revolt Against A Changing Culture And An Obtuse Political Establishment.”

As United States president-elect Donald Trump prepares his agenda for his first 100 days in office, for which he has promised and signaled significant change, analysts and pundits are left to speculate which of his various policy themes stressed during the campaign will be given priority, which will result in genuine change rather than posturing and theatrics or encounter successful resistance, and which will be relegated to campaigning rather than governing. Based on his own repeated climate denial, that of his appointee to head the Environmental Protection Agency, his promise to rejuvenate the coal sector, as well as his rhetoric in the weeks leading up to Inauguration Day, two predictions seem safe to make: the incoming Trump administration will at least try to (1) further restrict immigration (given his recurring promises to build the border wall, threats against sanctuary cities, and demonization of immigrants) and (2) to roll back the Obama administration’s efforts to slow the U.S. contribution toward climate change, as well as participate in cooperative international efforts to bring about the same result.

Taken individually, each of these policy agenda items ought to be concerning to many, but in combination they raise the specter of mounting hostility towards the increasingly pressing imperative to receive those expected to be displaced by climate change (often called “climate refugees”) by the country that has historically received the majority of political refugees. With a Trump administration aiming to unravel the previous administration’s fragile environmental legacy, climate change impacts like sea level rise and catastrophic flooding and drought should be expected to manifest earlier than previously anticipated. This will require of those vulnerable persons most likely to be directly affected by these policy changes that they adapt more urgently than ever before to a changing climate. The last option for many—according to Norman Myers, over 200 million will be displaced by climate change by 2050[i]—will be climate-induced migration, as small islands, coastal cities, and drought-vulnerable regions become uninhabitable.

Preparing for this eventuality requires a radical rethinking of national borders and membership, with environmental migrants threatening a tenfold increase in the number of persons seeking resettlement, compared to the already-beleaguered refugee resettlement system designed for traditional conflict refugees [See Gibney. In an era characterized by threats to deport and block the immigration of all members of a major world religion, braggadocio about making Mexico pay for a largely symbolic southern border wall, and conspiratorial economic and political isolationism fueled by fear of external threats, borders appear more likely to be restricted and fortified than opened to admit waves of environmental migrants, amidst efforts to reserve the privileges of membership in affluent societies to an increasingly vast minority.

And yet, other actions likely to be undertaken by the president-elect threaten to accelerate the need for such reform while also undermining its feasibility. Ironically, the same sort of insular populism and isolationism behind Brexit in Britain and Trump in the U.S. fuel and feed off immigration pressures that will only increase as anthropogenic climate change continues unabated. Having dismissed climate science as a hoax promulgated by the Chinese during the presidential campaign, Trump’s nominees for EPA Administrator and Secretary of State signal a profound hostility toward decarbonization efforts and a desire to further entrench the nation in a fossil fuel-based energy infrastructure into the foreseeable future. Insofar as climate change drives environmental migration, and a Trump presidency is likely to accelerate climate change, the toxic combination of anti-immigration posturing and climate change denial is likely to bring this combination of forces to a head. In the short run, Trumpism may feed the sources of its populist resentment well enough to maintain its power, but the blend of inward-focused xenophobia combined with global ambitions to open previously restricted sources of oil and find new sources of demand for coal for exploitation are ultimately unsustainable. Border walls cannot slow environmental change, and will eventually fail to stop those that are likely to be increasingly imperiled by it.

Withdrawing from international climate agreements, resuscitating a waning domestic coal industry and shifting state subsidies from renewables back to fossil fuels will further destabilize the environmental conditions that now keep many more persons from seeking to emigrate. Increased storm and flood damage, heightened food insecurity, salinization and erosion of soil, and the social and economic costs of degraded ecological systems all threaten to either make entire regions physically uninhabitable or politically and economically unviable, displacing those unable to meet their basic needs as refugees in need of international assistance, with prospects that are comparable to those for whom extant refugee conventions were designed. As climate change increases immigration pressures in affluent countries now grappling with more traditional conflict refugees than they can accommodate without government-toppling social unrest, those pressures will further fuel anti-immigration movements, candidates, and policies. Populist governments like Trump’s are likely to cause more rapid or extensive climate impacts, given their refusal to acknowledge the threat disproportionately posed to the world’s poorest by its most affluent, and these impacts are likely in turn to lead to more extreme forms of populism.

At some point, this vicious cycle needs to be broken before the global community regresses to a Hobbesian state of nature in which force and fraud become the sole remaining instruments for pursuing national interests and chaos reigns within and beyond borders that are increasingly fortified against those desperate to survive or strike back against those perceived as responsible for their circumstances. The crucial link, aside from mass migration by those fleeing climate change impacts, connects the refusal to constructively address climate change with increasing conflict and political violence, which is well documented in the environmental security literature.[ii] Fueled by heightened resource scarcity and deprivation, threatening to destabilize entire regions, as well as the version of American exceptionalism that denies global ecological interdependence, as well as the “Fortress America” that imagines a safe refuge from a world in turmoil, the dynamic between climate change and environmental migration is powerful but self-destructive. Whether it is to be broken by the realization of its arrogance and impossibility or shattered by epochal geopolitical shifts in response to its failure remains to be seen.


 1. Climate change, forced migration, and justice

Preparation for and responses to climate-induced displacement raises issues which scholars and activists alike refer to as climate justice. Since those most vulnerable to climate impacts are typically among the least responsible for causing climate change, given their relatively low per capita greenhouse gas emissions, while those most responsible are often among the least vulnerable to those impacts, climate change is often viewed as exacerbating existing global injustice within and among peoples.[iii] As an issue of justice, rather than merely a managerial problem for natural resources or a technological challenge for modernizing energy and transportation infrastructure, climate change represents a kind of wrong being committed by some groups against others, with a corresponding set of obligations to be fulfilled as part of its remedy, related to but distinct from slowing climate change itself.

When viewed from the perspective of states or peoples, climate justice is often thought of by scholars and activists to entail a prioritized set of obligations for those primarily responsible for causing the problem towards those expected to suffer from its disproportionate impacts, based on both the past and ongoing causal relationship of imposed harm and exacerbated inequality. Of highest priority among these related obligations is the duty of mitigation, since the prevention of any further potentially dangerous environmental change avoids any chance for additional wrongfully-imposed harm. Drawing on individual ethics, it is morally preferable not to expose others to a threat or risk of harm, rather than later trying to shield them from that threat, or making up for it in some way after harm is experienced. Had this primary obligation of climate justice been met, humans would not have caused any changes to the global climate, and there would be no climate-induced migration that required any further response.

Next in this ordered set of obligations is the duty of adaptation, assistance in preparing those exposed to anthropogenic environmental disturbances from suffering harm from damage to social, economic, or natural systems, which aims to insulate affected parties from the harm brought about by these changes. Again from the perspective of individual ethics, a morally second-best option after a once-avoidable threat or risk of harm has been introduced is to take all necessary steps to shield others from the harm of that threat. In the context of climate change, full compliance with the duty of adaptation (after at least a partial failure to fulfill duties of mitigation) would introduce disturbance to the global climate that threatened but did not result in harm to the world’s vulnerable.

Within the category of adaptation, one might distinguish between full and partial compliance with this justice duty, where full adaptation imposes risk but then avoids any experience of environmental harm, while under partial compliance with adaptation duties the impacts or their probabilities are delayed or minimized but not avoided altogether. Proactive adaptation efforts like the construction of seawalls or improved flood managements systems, the introduction of drought resistant crops, or the building of adaptative capacity within governments or civil society thus represent efforts at full compliance, and ones that at least make some effort to avoid or delay some harmful impacts. By seeking to prevent cities from becoming uninhabitable or regions from experiencing catastrophic declines in agricultural output, these measures could, if successful, likewise prevent or minimize environmental migration.

By contrast, reactive adaptation measures respond only after an anthropogenic risk of environmental harm is already imminent, as in the midst of severe drought or catastrophic flood, aiming to minimize its harmful impacts but typically under the understanding that prior moral failures will now result in some wrongfully-imposed harm. The delivery of emergency food aid in response to devastating crop failures or a major climate-induced storm or flood that disrupts the delivery of food or water to people aims to prevent a major humanitarian crisis, but involves at least a minor humanitarian failing. Prior duties of mitigation and effective proactive adaptation had failed, so the morally best available option at that point would be to prevent as much harm and suffering as possible. Where injustice cannot be avoided but can be minimized, remedial obligations require that it be. Smaller waves of climate-induced displacement as a direct result of successful reactive adaptation are morally preferable to larger ones.

Finally, where mitigation fails and adaptation is inadequate, climate justice requires compensation of those injured by wrongfully-imposed harm as a last resort. While it would be wrong to view compensation as an alternative to mitigation or adaptation so long as those ethically prior options remain available, once the harm has been experienced or is no longer avoidable the obligation to compensate for wrongful harm or loss arises. It can partially offset but not fully repair that loss.

The international resettlement of environmental migrants falls somewhere between reactive adaptation and compensation in the ethical priority system of climate justice, but is distinct from both. While it is morally better than nothing, and ethically required once better options have been exhausted, having to permanently relocate persons or entire peoples outside their countries of origin is clearly inferior to climate change mitigation or more proactive and harm-minimizing forms of adaptation. Those forced to flee dangerous anthropogenic environmental change are irreparably harmed, and their human rights (to territory and culture in the case of displaced peoples as well as to security and subsistence in the case of persons) clearly violated, once displaced from their homes and forced to seek refuge abroad. As Avner de Shalit argues, this kind of harm cannot be fully compensated, given the tight connections between place, culture, and identity. For the environmental migrant forced to abandon her home, the question isn’t whether they would be better off staying under circumstances that would likely be grim for them, but rather whether this wrongfully-imposed loss can be rectified:

“She experiences great personal distress; her sense of place and functioning of self-identity are distorted and at risk. For her, suggesting that she would be better off accepting the rectification scheme is to misunderstand and misinterpret her narrative. […] The point is not whether the new place is better or worse than the old one but that it is different; it is not the authentic place for that person. In other words, a person’s suffering relates to the displacement itself, the actual loss of place, or to the fact that the functioning of identity has been rendered insecure”.[iv]

Even entertaining the option of moving residents of Tuvalu or the Maldives when their island territories become uninhabitable is repugnant to many, as this assumes that such an irrevocable loss can be rectified or compensated for without significant loss. For de Shalit, this underscores the gravity of the mitigation imperative, to which we might also add the ethically prior adaptation alternatives.

But the gravity of climate-induced displacement should not make it unthinkable. Upon serious prior moral failings, it may at some point become the best remaining option for some, even many, albeit one comparable to triage during a disaster rather than as a response that even approximates the demands of climate justice. Failing to contemplate it, which is a necessary step in preparing for it, practically guarantees a worse outcome when a less bad one might otherwise have been available.


Climate justice and the receipt of environmental migrants

How might state obligations to receive environmental migrants fit into the tiered set of climate justice duties, then? Scholars have developed and applied justice principles or ethical criteria to specify how much various states should contribute toward international mitigation and adaptation efforts, or pay into funds used to compensate the victims of climate change for imposed loss and damage, but have thus far had relatively little to say about how climate justice applies to environmental migration.

While morally inferior to mitigation and more proactive and harm-minimizing forms of adaptation, the resettlement of environmental migrants at least avoids the catastrophic alternative of allowing persons to suffer and perish as their home territories become less and less able to sustain human life. Given that some climate-induced displacement has already occurred and more is now unavoidable, we must begin to contemplate how the international community will respond to it.

On what basis should existing states accept environmental migrants? David Miller offers an account of remedial responsibility that recognizes a plurality of hierarchically ordered principles. Where some potential victim stands to be seriously harmed without the intervention of another party, the mere fact of this vulnerability gives rise to remedial obligations. Of utmost importance is that the harm be prevented, he argues, but of secondary importance is that remedial duties be defensibly assigned:

“The issue is how to identify one particular agent, or group of agents, as having a particular responsibility to remedy the situation. For unless we can do this, there is a danger that the suffering or deprivation will continue unabated, even though everyone agrees that it is morally intolerable, because no-one is willing to accept the responsibility to step in and relieve it”.[v]

Where some party is both capable of providing a remedy and singularly morally responsible for the threat, the clearest and strongest remedial duties arise—the responsible and capable party must provide the remedy. Climate change, however, lacks one singularly responsible party, as all peoples and persons to some extent are responsible for emitting the greenhouse gases that cause it. Moreover, it would be impossible to attribute any particular climate change impact to the actions or failings of any particular nation-state, let alone any individual or smaller group of persons, given the nature of climate change as derived from cumulative and collective polluting activities rather than the sort of actions that can be isolated and ascribed to direct causal agency in the manner required by moral responsibility.

This collective responsibility is acknowledged within the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which calls upon state parties to take remedial action on climate change according to their “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.” Invoking collective but differentiated responsibility in this way invites the use of a proportionality principle in assigning remedial burdens of adaptation and compensation, where those more responsible are required to do more even if those less responsible are not exonerated from remedial duties altogether. Within the climate ethics literature, this reliance upon a collective form of moral responsibility follows the intuitively compelling “polluter-pays” principle in assigning remedial duties in proportion to some metric of responsibility, typically through comparisons of per capita emissions. Those responsible for causing some pollution problem, at least insofar as they are capable, should be the ones charged with providing an adequate remedy to it. As Miller suggests, providing some remedy may be a more urgent priority given the injustice inherent in avoidable suffering, but defensibly assigning those remedial burdens among those parties capable of rendering aid involves a secondary justice consideration.

“Those responsible for causing some pollution problem should be the ones charged with providing an adequate remedy to it.”

Morally responsible parties capable of providing an adequate remedy for would-be victims are not always available, however, so Miller explores other remedial principles that might be invoked when moral responsibility is unavailable. Mere causal responsibility exists when a party contributes toward a threat without being culpable or blameworthy for doing so, as in cases of accidents or excusable ignorance. Other factors being equal, parties causing a threat have stronger obligations to provide a remedy to victims compared to others based on their role in that harm. Mere capacity to remedy may be sufficient in cases where causally or morally responsible parties cannot be identified or are unable to provide an adequate remedy. Where capacity can be differentiated, as through proxies like per capita income or wealth in the case of recipients of environmental migrants, a proportionality principle might again be used, with more capable states required to accept more migrants and less capable ones fewer.

Philosophers and political theorists love abstraction and detailed principles, for it allows them to isolate and consider particular relationships and the implications of principles and judgments under their consideration, and the scholarly literature abounds with competing priority systems for addressing hard cases in climate ethics. What if one state is more responsible but less capable than another? How should remedial burdens be allocated among them when considering multiple criteria? What if no peoples are responsible at all, as either excusably ignorant because the decisions that entrenched their high per capita carbon footprints were made before climate science was widely disseminated, or because those decisions were made by past rather than present persons? What if no individuals are responsible, since direct causal connections between any one person’s carbon footprint and any climate impact cannot be drawn, or because they lack control over the collective social decisions that affect national per capita emissions? Would it be fair for their governments to impose remedial burdens associated with climate change upon them, as for example in the form of higher energy prices?

While these questions are philosophically interesting and important, they are practically beside the point when considering problems associated with environmental migration and how the justified claims to resettlement might be accommodated by those more fortunate. States rather than persons can either accept or deny those seeking refuge from environmental harm, and per capita national emissions offer a reasonable proxy for differentiated moral responsibility for climate change. As the UNFCCC treaty language directs, states that are more responsible for climate change should be more responsible for the various remedial duties in response to it, including its mitigation as well as adaptation or (where adaptation alone is insufficient) compensation. As that language also instructs, the “respective capabilities” of state parties to the convention might serve as a secondary criteria for assigning these remedial burdens, but it is typically the states most responsible for causing climate change that are now most capable of receiving environmental migrants, with present affluence a function of past exploitation of fossil fuels and thus also climate-changing emissions. Precisely how these two criteria are operationalized and combined makes some difference to the detail of how the remedial burdens of climate change are assigned, but does not affect the general picture of developed countries as primarily responsible for such remedies, including where necessary the receipt of environmental migrants.

Within real-world international climate policy negotiations, such moral judgment remains anathema, despite its obvious intuitive appeal in principle. Despite its softened and more cooperative stance under the Obama administration compared to the previous president, the United States continues to resist any reference to language about responsibility or equity being included in agreements detailing national mitigation or adaptation, as well as to references to “loss and damage” provisions that imply the need for some compensatory system for those not spared by failed mitigation and adaptation. Admission of any national duty of justice to respond to or remedy climate injustice would involve the kind of liability and non-optional remedial obligations that even cooperative states prefer to avoid,when more optional supererogatory or humanitarian framings for similar responses are available. Hence, states responsible for disproportionately high greenhouse emissions prefer the more pragmatic language of capacity and efficiency—they help because they can, and because it will make a difference, not because they must—while those expected to suffer disproportionate harm from it prefer the language of justice.

“They help because they can, and because it will make a difference, not because they must.

If a Trump administration sends an envoy to future climate negotiations at all, this already fairly hard line could now only be expected to become more rigid and unapologetic. The United States will not soon acknowledge any remedial responsibility to receive environmental migrants as a consequence of its moral responsibility for climate change. Even if climate change was not a hoax perpetuated by the Chinese, and people are forced to flee lands rendered uninhabitable by anthropogenic environmental change, there could be no right of immigration for those displaced by climate change under the worldview proffered by Trump during the campaign, as control over borders and territorial resources remain fundamental aspects of sovereignty that populist narratives of insidious globalization seek to more jealously restrict. Insofar as immigration is a privilege allowed only at the pleasure and for the convenience of magnanimous states and their governments or elites, which can be restricted at any time and to any group, as recent populist narratives again maintain, little real-world progress can be expected in linking the receipt of environmental migrants to ideas like climate justice. But the hostility to the idea by prevailing public sentiments does not refute the obligation or make it any less pressing for those on whose behalf it is invoked, and should not hinder those seeking to explore its implications.


Climate refugees or environmental migrants?

The term “climate refugee” has undeniable rhetorical appeal, comparing the circumstances of those displaced by climate change with those feeling conflict or political persecution. As Frank Biermann and Ingrid Boas note, in many ways the circumstances of those fleeing climate change are worse than those fleeing the sort of conflict that gave rise to international refugee laws and conventions. Those seeking refuge from conflict typically harbor some hope of return after the conflict subsides, and so view their relocation as temporary rather than permanent, as would be the case when territories become irreversibly uninhabitable. Even if their relocation goes on for decades, or they never return, this hope for return to their country of origin can motivate efforts to preserve cultures and political communities that are scattered among various recipient nations or regions. The finality and irreversibility of the kinds of environmental change that are likely to drive environmental migration offer no such prospect for eventual return, and thus no psychological bond to a place that could serve as motivation to preserve group culture. The reasons for fleeing might be similar in both kinds of cases, with short-term physical safety and medium-term security only available through resettlement, but the damage from being geographically separated from one’s home country may be more severe for environmental migrants.

In other ways, environmental migrants are simply different from traditional conflict refugees. Those fleeing violent conflict or government persecution typically need to escape their home countries, and perhaps even their friendly regional neighbors with whom they may share common cultural elements. Apart from small island states that are entirely inundated, requiring resettlement within the borders of recipient states, many environmental migrants could be moved elsewhere within their home countries, which are not in themselves the origin of the threat. As Frank Biermann and Ingrid Boas note, where intranational resettlement is feasible it will often be desirable, as this prevents the sort of cultural loss inherent in most international emigration. [vi] Where necessary, international assistance could be mobilized to support movements of people within rather than across national borders, in a less extreme form of reactive adaptation. Where this domestic resettlement occurs prior to a crisis, making it a lesser evil, it could take the form of proactive adaptation, or even urban resilience.

Legally, environmental migrants don’t fit well within the category defined for those fleeing conflict or political persecution. According to the 1984 Cartagena Declaration, for example, refugees qualifying for international assistance are “persons who flee their countries because their lives, safety or freedom have been threatened by generalised violence, foreign aggression, internal conflicts, massive violation of human rights or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order.” While some have proposed expanding this definition to recognize environmental migrants as legal refugees, given the comparably grim prospects of so-called “climate refugees,” several considerations weigh against the undifferentiated treatment of traditional conflict refugees and environmental migrants.

First is the issue of capacity and scale, given the apparent inability or unwillingness of current recipient states to accommodate more than a tiny fraction of traditional conflict refugees that are eligible for resettlement. According to the UN High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR), 65.3 million persons have been forcibly displaced by conflict, 21.3 million of whom qualify as refugees in the traditional sense.[vii] Most are hosted within their regions of origin, often with minimal international assistance, with 29 percent of the world’s displaced hosted in central or southern Africa and 39 percent in the Middle East or North Africa. Only 12 percent are hosted by states within the Americas and 6 percent by European states. Of those 14.4 million “refugees of concern” to the UNHCR, less than one percent are annually submitted for asylum within recipient states that grant them permanent settlement, and only about 60 percent of those are actually resettled under the UNHCR’s refugee resettlement system. Three quarters of those granted asylum are resettled within the United States, with 90 percent settling there or in Canada or Australia.[viii] In a world where recipient states now deny the immigration claims of over 99 percent of currently eligible conflict refugees, the prospect of increasing the number of eligible refugees by a factor of ten without causing that system’s collapse appears poor. Any space made available to an environmental migrant would only subtract from those available to traditional conflict refugees.

Moreover, the present refugee resettlement system is showing signs of being affected by the populist anti-immigration backlash that has featured in recent U.S. and Australian elections, with promises to build walls or stop boats, and could easily be overwhelmed by the spiking numbers of traditional conflict refugees in recent years. As previously noted, the rise of anti-immigration candidates and sentiments can at least party be attributed to the relatively modest legal immigration of resettled refugees, with national participation in the UNHCR program cited by populist candidates as among national threats. Absent a sea change in popular attitudes toward the resettlement of traditional conflict refugees, it appears unlikely that either state will agree to ramp up their capacity to meet more than a fraction of the demand for international resettlement at any point in the near future. Even maintaining status quo numbers threatens to undermine the UNHCR’s resettlement system via the anti-immigration attitudes and governments it fosters. That the number of refugees qualifying for international resettlement might be increased by a factor of ten to accommodate environmental migrants is at present unthinkable.

More permeable borders and liberalized immigration policies throughout the global North may be needed to adequately respond to the bourgeoning demands for migration and resettlement by both kinds of displaced people. Both face grim prospects otherwise, and the moral claims to refuge are comparable in both cases. Merely redefining the class of refugees under international law to include those displaced by environmental change would not in itself be a solution to the problem of how to accommodate an enormous number of environmental migrants. Legal protections comparable to those pledged to traditional conflict refugees—if not identical to them, for reasons to be considered below—are needed to avoid this aspect of climate injustice, but these will fail if not accompanied by changes in the social capacity and political will to accommodate and integrate larger numbers of immigrants.

The second consideration concerns the distinct ethical justifications for receiving traditional conflict refugees compared to environmental migrants displaced by anthropogenic climate change, and the distinct obligations that these imply for recipient states. Hosting a traditional conflict refugee fulfills the humanitarian duty of rescue, which is motivated by a recognition of common humanity and the facts of vulnerability and capacity to remedy. Countries agree to resettle those granted asylum because they can assist in minimizing suffering, not from any culpability for the conflict that eventually forced their displacement or in repayment for any other kind of past wrong. Mere capacity and not responsibility determines which countries should receive such refugees, according to the conventional views about refugee protections, and how many they should take. Apart from being the beneficiaries of advanced stages of economic development and relatively high living standards, the primary current recipient countries also have large territories with relatively low population densities, relatively recent patterns of European immigration and substantial cultural diversity from more recent waves of immigration, and relatively abundant natural resources. All these factors could arguably be included in a metric for differentiating national capacities to receive such migrants, and paired with a proportionality principle to assess whether or not states were doing their share in this regard. While humanitarian duties of rescue are often thought of by philosophers to be categorically distinct from the obligations of justice by which national “shares” of refugee resettlement burdens might be allocated, failing to fully utilize this capacity while urgent claims go unmet could be used to determine which states were meeting their humanitarian duties and which were shirking them. Nonetheless, moral responsibility for the dire circumstances for those now in need of assistance comprises no part of the rationale.

By contrast, and as suggested above, principles of responsibility or duties of restorative justice might be used to assign remedial duties associated with climate change, where moral responsibility for the threat to which migration is a response can be established and differentiated. Given the expectations for a vast and thus far unmet demand to receive environmental migrants in the near and more distant future, assigning such remedial duties on the basis of “common but differentiated responsibilities” for climate change would be justified by equity principles more popularly invoked on behalf of national mitigation and more traditional adaptation burdens. While it might not matter from the perspective of potential recipients which states offer resettlement for environmentally displaced migrants, since their primary concern lies in their short- and long-term physical security, from the perspective of recipient states, a responsibility-based principle for assigning resettlement burdens would be defensible, indeed ethically required to ensure adequate protections for migrants, and to avoid unfair burdens upon recipient states. Here, fair shares in the collective endeavor to avoid exposing innocents to grave peril for which they are not responsible for involve duties of justice alongside those of humanity, and voluntary international cooperation may depend on the shared sense that all are contributing to the joint effort appropriately.

With traditional conflict refugees, however, such a responsibility-based principle for assigning remedial burdens upon states would be obviously inappropriate. Given the central role in international law of the principle of non-refoulement, which forbids returning or expelling refugees to places where they could be threatened,[ix] it would be in fundamental conflict with the primary basis for refugee protection if the same state parties that are responsible for causing forcible displacement were also obliged to accept those refugees fleeing them. Lumping environmental migrants together with traditional conflict refugees by merely expanding one classification rather than creating a second one with comparable protections alongside it would risk conflating the distinct rationales for resettling these two different categories of emigrants, along with the principles used to determine fair shares of remedial burdens.

Keeping these categories distinct need not entail recognizing one kind of claim as more urgent, or prioritizing one class of migrants over the other. National obligations to accept one kind of migrant are not fungible with the other: states cannot meet their obligations to accept their fair share of conflict refugees by admitting more environmental migrants. Economic and social resources used to integrate one kind of migrant into their new homes cannot simply be diverted from those used to assist in the integration of the other, as those fleeing conflict and political persecution often have different needs than those escaping permanently uninhabitable but otherwise peaceful territories. Maintaining these as distinct claims to be made on distinct resettlement systems merely reflects the important differences between the two categories of legitimate claimants to international resettlement.


Conclusion: climate change and immigration under Trump

The ascension of Trump was made possible by his successful cultivation of traditional pro-business Republican affinities with fossil fuel interests alongside previously marginalized white resentment against a host of demonized Others (including not only immigrants but also citizens of color, urban dwellers, scientists, Hollywood entertainers, the disabled, Muslims, the Chinese, “Never-Trump” Republicans, Democrats, residents of the Americas south of the Rio Grande, and so on). While his characteristically bombastic rhetoric toward climate change—casting it as a hoax and threatening to “cancel” the Paris Agreement—might suggest a more extreme view, his opposition to greenhouse gas regulations and support for fossil fuels rather than renewable energy sources would not make him an outlier within his party, or depart from the policy agenda of previous Republican presidents. But his embrace and mobilization of populist anti-immigration sentiments is historically new for a major party U.S. presidential candidate, much less a successful one, and more closely resembles the views of far right minority parties in Europe that have thus far been shunned by more traditional center-right mainstream parties in governing coalitions. Trump’s fusion of hostility to climate change mitigation, as well as his advocacy of more restricted borders and more limited immigration opportunities, may be unified in his distinctive version of belligerent isolationism, but it presents a unique historical moment for a set of opposed forces that manifest their tension through the threat of the climate refugee.

The Trump administration’s hostility toward and dismissal of the Paris Agreement, the UNFCCC process, and the science on which both are based is hardly new. The guarded optimism expressed by supporters of the Paris Agreement, which turned on the sincerity of U.S. participation as evidenced by the Obama administration’s efforts to control power plant emissions under the Clean Power Plan, now appears to have been premature. Prospects for avoiding serious damage from anthropogenic climate change now appear dim, but they probably would not have fared much better under the watch of any of the other 17 candidates that campaigned for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.

Previous opponents of U.S. action on climate change played many of the same cards in an effort to form public opinion against meaningful climate action in either a domestic or international context: casting doubt on the science by trumpeting climate skepticism and promulgating conspiracy theories about the insidious motives of climatologists, fearmongering about international organizations like the UN or multilateral governance processes like the UNFCCC as threatening U.S sovereignty, exaggerating the costs of low-carbon energy sources, and rendering the victims of climate change invisible. But Trump’s fusion of these more conventional public relations and opinion management strategies with an anti-immigration fervor that its likely to be used against those fleeing environmental catastrophe as it has thus far been used against those fleeing conflict in Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia (the source of 53% of current conflict refugees, according to the UNHCR) prepares a new and especially dangerous obstacle to U.S. participation in international efforts to remedy climate injustice. As a preemptive strike against future environmental migrants, this aspect of current U.S. populism threatens to reignite North-South tensions over a host of issues of common concern, undermining decades of efforts to build common ground from which the necessary global cooperation might emerge. By turning its back to the world, by building a wall, literally and figuratively, the Trump administration simultaneously denies its role in causing and thus also any constructive role in addressing climate change and the widespread displacement that it is expected to cause. Meanwhile, its contributions to climate change continue, as greenhouse gas emissions are not contained by literal or figurative border walls, exacerbating a set of related problems that it refuses to acknowledge any role in creating, much less any responsibility to remedy. In a tragic irony, increased immigration pressures from an environmental migrant crisis that it helps to create may continue to fuel U.S. anti-immigration populism, global isolationism, anti-intellectual distrust of scientists and “post-fact” distrust of journalists or others that might reveal the consequences of this disengagement from shared earth system governance and denial of ecological interdependence.

T.S. Eliot predicted that the world would end not with a bang, but a whimper. As many anxiously await the upcoming presidential transition, I do not wish to speculate on how this likely combination of renewed U.S. obstruction of international and domestic climate policy development and increasingly restricted borders and limited immigration policies will end. I can only observe, as I had above, that it is not sustainable, constructed as it is of an image of America that can fortify itself against the world and its problems rather than cooperating in trying to solve those problems, and which can be granted immunity from the laws of ecology because its chief executive refuses to believe in them. My hope is that we can begin to think about what for many has been unthinkable, plan for eventualities that defy conventional planning processes and disciplines, and recognize the principles and value commitments that are at stake in actions that are at present politically infeasible. Considerations of climate justice and human rights require better alternatives than are presently available or likely to be made available in the near future under present political conditions. That we are at present ill-equipped to develop such measures need not deter our contemplating them, or seeking to diffuse the problem through solidarity, principle, and a commitment to renewed cooperation rather than either a bang or a whimper.

Footnotes and References:

[i] Norman Myers (2002), “Environmental Refugees: A Growing Phenomenon of the 21st Century,” Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences 357(1420): 609–613.

[ii] See for example Thomas Homer-Dixon (2001), Environment Scarcity, and Violence (Princeton University Press).

[iii] See for example Steve Vanderheiden (2008), Atmospheric Justice: A Political Theory of Climate Change (New York: Oxford University Press).

[iv] Avner de Shalit (2011), “Climate Change Refugees, Compensation, and Rectification,” The Monist 94(3): 324.

[v] David Miller (2001), “Distributing Responsibilities,” The Journal of Political Philosophy 9(4): 453.

[vi] See for example Frank Biermann and Ingrid Boas (2010), “Preparing for a Warmer World: Towards a Global Governance System to Protect Climate Refugees,” Global Environmental Politics 10(1): 60-88.

[vii] United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR), “Figures at a Glance,” online at (accessed 12 January 2017).

[viii] UNHCR, “Resettlement,” online at (accessed 12 January 2017.

[ix] Article 33 of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees reads: “No Contracting State shall expel or return (“refouler”) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”

Steve Vanderheiden
Steve Vanderheiden
Steve Vanderheiden is Associate Professor of Political Science and Environmental Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and a member of CU-Boulder’s Center for Science and Technology Policy. Along with numerous articles and book chapters on various topics in environmental political theory, he is the author of Atmospheric Justice: A Political Theory of Climate Change (Oxford, 2008).

“How many newsworthy issues, which should have been the rightful domain of philosophy, have been usurped in recent years by religion, law, and psychology?”

Lee McIntyre

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