Douglas Todd: Greens push to welcome ‘environmental refugees’ to Canada

Has been discussed for some time but with climate change accelerating, will likely see more pressures:

Amita Kettner’s mother was killed when a mudslide wiped out the family home in North Vancouver.

The Green party candidate for Burnaby North was 14 when the sudden burst of extreme weather struck in 2005, sweeping Eliza Wing Mun Kettner and her house down an embankment.

The tragic family history adds to why Kettner, along with the Green party of Canada, is impassioned about the party’s out-of-the-ordinary election promise to advocate for making “environmental refugee” a new immigration category in Canada.

“We, as a country, have a certain amount of prosperity and comfort, and we can prepare to have climate refugees. That is not something that everywhere else can do,” says Kettner, who recently obtained a PhD in astrophysics from the University of California, Santa Clara.

Soon many regions of the globe are “likely to be on fire, or underwater or having crop failures,” said Kettner.

“We might not have to take refugees that come overland (entering Canada from the U.S.), but it’s possible we might see mass migration from the equatorial band. I think we should be ready to accept people from everywhere and anywhere.”

The Green party knows it faces an uphill battle on the issue, since the United Nations refugee agency, which currently defines refugees as people escaping war and persecution, has failed to come up with a definition of environmental refugee, citing legal and political complications.

Nevertheless, the party’s 2019 platform declares it intends to “lead a national discussion to define the term ‘environmental refugee,’ advocate for its inclusion as a refugee category in Canada, and accept an appropriate share of the world’s environmental refugees into Canada.”

With tens of thousands of Canadians joining climate-change protests on Friday and the environment ranking as leading election issue, projections about the potential scale of the climate crisis still vary. One widely cited study, from the United Nations University, suggests there will be 200 million environmental migrants by 2050.

Experts are also concerned that only the wealthy will have a chance to emigrate from the world’s increasingly hot spots, which could be devastated by water shortages, crop failure and extreme weather. This year, for instance, severe drought hit East Africa, unusual typhoons battered the Philippines, and crops withered in Honduras.

Sanjay Jeram. GERRY KAHRMANN / PNG

Simon Fraser University political scientist Sanjay Jeram says the Canadian Greens’  enthusiasm for broadening the refugee category “comes at an interesting time when, across the Western world, we have seen parties — on the left and right — express hesitation about their state’s capacity to take in refugees.”

Even people sympathetic to the plight of refugees are timid about reopening the definition used by the United Nations convention, Jeram said. They fear some nation-states will use it as an opportunity to withdraw from current commitments to take in people escaping war and persecution, of which there are more than 22 million.

Nevertheless, Sanjay pointed to New Zealand as a potential example for Canada to follow, since some of its politicians have been exploring how to make climate change a legitimate ground for an asylum claim.

Last year New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern planned to create a special visa for Pacific Islanders forced to relocate because of rising sea levels. She hoped her nation, as a precedent, could offer 100 visas each year. Ardern’s plan, however, has run into legal barriers.

Like many environmental specialists, Kuttner, who wouldn’t speculate about how many environmental refugees Canada might accept, is concerned that rich and educated people will be most likely to escape climate-change calamity in their regions, including through migration to countries like Canada, which are somewhat less vulnerable.

“There’s a definite sense that some people, if they have enough capital, will be able to hide themselves from climate disaster,” Kuttner said.

“It’s definitely true that the more money people have the easier it is to handle large climate changes. But even for the well-off it’s still a gamble.”

Andy Yan. NICK PROCAYLO/ PNG

Andy Yan, director of the city program at Simon Fraser University, says it’s possible some people around the world who can afford it are trying to find a haven from climate change by migrating to Metro Vancouver and other parts of North America.

“That would probably be a factor. It goes into the idea of Metro Vancouver as a ‘hedge city.’ It’s not only about looking to create financial and political stability, it’s increasingly about searching for climate stability.”

That said, Yan is among those warning Metro Vancouver and Canada will not be immune from climate-change problems. He cites a recent study by University of Victoria scientists projecting that Vancouver could be warmer than San Diego by 2050, causing nearby forest fires and water shortages.

While it’s important to have discussions about our humanitarian responsibilities to the world’s migrants, however defined, Yan said the value of facing up to the potential for a mass movement of environmental refugees is that it reminds us to first take decisive action against climate change itself.

“How about having government policies that prevent the situation to begin with?”

Source: Douglas Todd: Greens push to welcome ‘environmental refugees’ to Canada

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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