A Different Kind of Tsunami: Climate Refugees

Remains of a flooded village in Pakistan in December 2010 (Photo: RIZWAN TABASSUM/AFP/Getty Images)

It’s not so much the planet we need to worry about, it’s each other.  And ourselves.

That’s the message of the documentary Climate Refugees, which aims to portray “the human face of climate change.” The film takes viewers to flooded disaster zones in Bangladesh and China, to tiny island nations like Tuvalu under threat from sea level rise, and to the desert wastelands of Sudan, where, according to the UN,  the devastating war in Darfur has been driven partly by climate change.

Extreme weather events are expected to become more common as the climate continues to change, raising the odds for disastrous floods like the ones Pakistan last year, which displaced more than 20 million people, and major droughts which will likely increase desertification in vulnerable areas of Africa and Asia, threatening food and water supplies for millions of people.

And all of those people will need someplace to go.

That is the real focus of Climate Refugees – how the world will deal with the current and increasing flood of environmental refugees, or what the UN calls “environmentally induced migrants.”

“Everyone we spoke with said we are absolutely not ready for this tsunami that is rolling toward humankind,” said filmmaker Michael Nash after a screening of the film at the California Academy of Sciences Thursday night in San Francisco.

“Climate refugees” is a controversial term because the Geneva Convention provides certain protections for people who meet a narrow definition of the word “refugee,” which includes political and religious persecution, Nash explained. Right now, that definition does not include environmental disasters.

“There is no international law right now that protects these people,” said Nash. “They [the UN] are in such fear that these numbers are going to be so vast that if they included them within the Geneva Convention, they actually think the Geneva Convention will implode,” he said.

The film, which originally premiered at COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009, alternates between vivid images of devastated or threatened communities in vulnerable areas around the world and interviews with the people affected, and interviews with international officials such as Achim Steiner, the executive director for the UN’s Environmental Program, environmental experts like Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute, Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich,  and the late Stephen Schneider, a renowned Stanford climate scientist, and high-profile national figures such as Nancy Pelosi and Newt Gingrich.

Yes, Newt Gingrich.

Gingrich, well-known for his conservative views, was once an environmental studies professor.  He appears frequently in the film, which was a very conscious decision on the part of the filmmakers.

“We really wanted to have both sides of the political spectrum be involved in this,” said producer Justin Hogan, who joined Nash at Thursday’s screening.

That’s why Nash doesn’t address the causes of climate change until well into the film, he said.

“I wanted to drive the conservatives past this car accident before we actually told them who caused the car accident,” said Nash. “Everything that ever went into this film was all about trying to bring the Right into the conversation.”

The 89-minute film is ambitious, both in its geographic scope and in the breadth of issues it touches on.  Again and again it circles back to the issue of national security, pounding home the message that climate-related environmental disasters are imminent in poor, crowded, vulnerable parts of the world, and that the repercussions – in the form of refugees and global instability – will be felt Europe and North America in the near future.

It’s not a happy film.  In fact, the last section, which features experts expressing hope that technology and behavioral change can and may save us, felt a little tacked on, as if in efforts to keep people from leaving the theater in utter despair.  (It worked; several people I spoke with afterward expressed gratitude for those closing rays of sunlight.)

My only real criticism may be a little picky.  I didn’t hear in the film an obvious acknowledgment that not all environmental disasters are the result of climate change.  (If there was one in the film, I missed it.)  Yes, the 2007 International Panel on Climate Change report says that climate change will likely increase extreme weather events.  However, there have been devastating floods in Asia as far back as human memory.  If the goal is to engage all sides in this conversation, addressing that issue more proactively might be beneficial to the cause.

  • http://cagreening.blogspot.com/ Wes Rolley

    I am very concerned about the refugee problem. We all know that the furor over illegal immigration in the US will form the basis for the action of some regarding refugees.

    This is especially a moral issue for the United States as our hubris over American Exceptionalism too often blinds us to the plight of others. The fact that the largest numbers of refugees flee for areas far from here makes it much easier to mutter something akin to let them eat cake. We have done the most to cause the problem. We need to do the most to resolve it.

  • Meme Mine

    Confirming the reality that the vast majority of American voters are now “former” climate change believers, was Obama’s not mentioning the climate crisis in his State Of The Union Address and his silent response to the elimination of IPCC funding. Democrats know twenty five more years of unstoppable warming belief is not sustainable in voter support.
    *Note: The scientific community was also strangely silent when their IPCC funding was cut and when Obama clearly ignored the scientists CO2 mitigation plans to curb CO2.
    Abandoning climate change doesn’t mean the deniers have won the climate change war. Because the war against pollution will never end. Our struggle is against those that choose not to protect the environment and if anything, climate change did raise awareness for environmental protection. I see Obama now focusing on new technology, waste, fresh water, and air pollution in our cities.
    Obama’s choice of abandoning climate change was the only option as Democrats don’t intentionally try to subvert progressivism by taking it down a road that nobody supports.

  • http://www.undirect.com barton

    Protect the earth, to maintain ecological