Seeking Man’s Humanity to Man: The Refugee Crisis, Climate Change, and Stewardship of the 21st Century

, senior analyst, Climate & Energy Program | September 4, 2015, 12:38 pm EDT
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Yesterday morning, I gave shoe-tying lessons. Long and futile minutes working on a tight knot, a strong bunny ear, around the tree and through the hole, until we agreed to try again later and I tied the laces myself. An hour later, I untied them and sent my small son into his classroom for his second day of school, and his latest day of great fortune and abundance.

By the time I got to work, I knew about another little boy whose mother had tied his shoes on a recent day and had perished with him in the Mediterranean. We wouldn’t know about them, except that this little boy washed ashore on a beach in Turkey. His photo, where he lies as if for a nap in his crib, save for his shoes, is haunting minds around the planet.

My mind.

To write about this in this moment is audacious, I know. But having been a witness to this slow-but-steady human crisis, more audacious is all the not-writing. In this blog post, in clumsy earnestness, I try to say what I see. And yes, I have an agenda: it’s man’s humanity to man.

This mother: a bewildered witness

I work on climate change, but for me this is not a climate change story. It’s the story of war and terror and desperation; of parents and children waking and going to sleep at night gripped with dread; running away, but toward the unknown. It’s the story of what people will do for those they love: anything. It’s about moral failure. It is staggeringly complex and would take a thousand voices to do it justice. But it’s also, I believe, the unfolding story of the 21st century, to be magnified a thousand-fold if we let it.

I’m a white, middle-class American woman and on a global scale, one of the more comfortable people alive. I quote Ta-Nehisi Coates with some trepidation because I know the parallels between us are few, and yet when he tells his son “You must never look away from this,” I want to tell mine the same. Our sons are different and yet, maybe the “this” is ultimately the same.

About a decade ago, a group of scientists published work on scenarios of our future, and one of them—fortress world—has stuck in my mind, in part because signs of it crop up all the time. In this scenario, as global crises worsen, elites of the world hunker down in comfortable enclaves while the vast global majority suffers. Since then, post-apocalyptic fiction and film has fed versions of this scenario to us repeatedly, perhaps because we see its origins and are morbidly curious about where this ends. It ends badly, that’s where, so someone grab the wheel.

Refugees and migrants crossing the Mediterranean to Europe in 2014. Photo: The Italian Coastguard / Massimo Sestini

Refugees and migrants crossing the Mediterranean to Europe in 2014. Photo: The Italian Coastguard / Massimo Sestini

Climate change means displacement; displacement means people

Here’s where climate change does factor in. From where many Americans are perched, the last fifty or so years have been relatively easy. That is changing in modest but important ways—e.g., increased flooding, storm damage, drought—and we are already flailing somewhat haplessly, slow to adapt and, until recently, slower to mitigate. We need to urgently get our act together, because the next 50 years are going to be much harder in terms of climate impacts and are going to determine whether we let climate change start spinning out of control for centuries to come.

But we urgently need to get our act together, also, because the tragedy we’re witnessing, the heartbreak we’re feeling, and the anti-immigrant reactions we’re seeing as today’s refugee crisis unfolds are potentially just the opening lines. It’s complicated. But climate change could displace more than 100 million people this century because of sea level rise alone. To say nothing of displacement from the conflict and war that could be waged over increasingly stressed resources. In this scenario, millions of people, millions of children, get cast into the most fraught and dangerous circumstances, and human suffering comes to define our century. Let’s not.

I am connecting this tragedy to this seemingly disconnected global trend because the science tells us we should expect large human populations, real people, to be caught in the crush of climate impacts. And if we despise this idea, we’ve got to fight its unfolding.

Ta-Nehisi Coates tells his son “You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.” I believe this holds true on the global stage. And when the IPCC dryly relays future trends in disruption and displacement, I remind myself that we’re talking about real people, their hard work and their hopes, their livelihoods and lives, their very bodies.

Our humanity towards humanity

Are we up to today’s moral challenges—from immigration, to poverty, equity, human rights, climate change, and back again?  We have to be if we’re to keep humanity intact in the face of tomorrow’s challenges. I don’t have tidy steps to take. It will take a thousand voices to craft lasting solutions to the migrant crisis, none of them mine.

But solutions to the climate crisis are on the table. Will they help people fleeing in boats or abandoning villages today? No. But if we apply them to their fullest, we can hope to ease climate’s exacerbating role in human suffering as this century unfolds.

The nations of Europe are gripped in a struggle for solutions today. The nations of the world will grapple with climate action when they meet in Paris later this year. Pope Francis will deliver a moral imperative message on climate, poverty, and equity when he addresses Congress later this month. The rest of us can engage and push and challenge our leaders and ourselves. There may be a point in human history when we are overtaken by events, but how about we, especially we who are so blessed and well-rested—the tie-ers of happy children’s shoes—say not in our time.

To find immediate, practical ways to help refugees seeking safety in Europe, this list of actions and organizations is a useful resource.

Update (Sept. 8, 3:15 p.m.): In response to excellent feedback I have received, I’d like to expand on my statement above: “This is not a climate change story.”  This story is indeed about much more than climate change. However, there is a strong climate dimension playing out even today, and there has been some good analysis done to explore this connection. Those desiring to stem the movement of people from homes and homelands they would otherwise not wish to leave will need to understand the present and growing role of climate change. That connection was not effectively made in my blog—my thanks to those who have flagged this for me.

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  • Russel Ray Photos

    What’s this coherent, well-written, thought-provoking, old-time-journalism blog post doing on the Internet? That’s not what the Internet is for!………………..LOL

  • rita thomas

    In all good measure, the debates are over. This is now a social, economical and political quandary. Those in power who would not hear it–are the same who hold the power in their hands and the lives of “climate change refugees”. As those who are suffering struggle, the system debates yet again on what qualifies as a “refugee”. Humanity becomes tied up in rhetoric & red tape. I am deeply saddened by this. People should be more important than politics. What you write about in your article in my opinion touches on what is part of the problem. You obviously care–and are doing your part. But I feel that there are many who could do something, and yet don’t. Why? either they still do not believe, or they suffer from that–I’m comfortable, my family is comfortable, so what’s wrong? I know this sounds judgmental, and I want to clarify that I do understand that folks are just trying to survive. Working long hours and taking care of theirs…but when the _____hits the fan in their neighborhood—?

    • Erika Spanger-Siegfried

      Rita, thanks for lending your voice. You articulate the challenges really well, and the heartbreak of being a compassionate witness.

  • Fred

    Bravo! Very nicely written. And you’re right, it is going to take a million voices (and even more money) to wake western societies up from our comfortable perch seemingly high atop these problems. We must learn that we’re not immune to the problems unfolding before us on the evening news. Indeed some Americans are living through these impacts right now, albeit to a lesser degree. Fresh water shortages, wildfires, extended periods of drought, more intensive weather systems are becoming more the norm in areas throughout all corners of the globe. Our [Americans] biggest problem is that the words “Climate Change” & “Global Warming” have become so highly politicized that I’m afraid we will never get anywhere on these issues, until a scene from the movie “The Day After Tomorrow” plays out on the evening news in all its spectacular glory. Nobody sees the water wells running dry in Porterville, California except those people who are there right now. Hurricane Katrina?!? Huh, what?! That was ancient history, right? The tornado outbreak in April 2011 – well it was spring, we’re supposed to get tornados!! “Global Warming, it’s 15 feet of snow on the ground in Boston right now! I told you Al Gore didn’t know what he was talking about!!” That’s the ignorance you get from half the people in American when you try to have an intelligent conversation about this issue. I’m afraid we have no choice but to ride this out until the Earth corrects the imbalance that has been created my mankind’s consumption of fossil fuels and deforestation. Humans are not big enough to hurt the Earth, but everything we’ve done has consequences and many of us are going to pay the price for this period in history.

    • Erika Spanger-Siegfried

      Thank you, Fred. And thanks for your perspective on where we are nationally. I’m more optimistic that certain demographics (younger people, minorities, women) who will come to define our country fairly soon are more concerned and responsive to these issues. I share some of your fears, though. Let’s hope to be wrong.

  • Richard Solomon

    Thanks for a poignant clarion call to those of us still living in relative comfort. Most everyone reading this is in accord with the author. The challenge will be to convince the skeptics of the need to act….and soon. After all my 6 year old grandchild will be facing these pressures in a few short years.

    • Erika Spanger-Siegfried

      Thank you, Richard. It’s no small challenge. But we have no small amount of momentum and passion.

  • Chuck Kutscher

    I find it disappointing that the author works on climate change and yet says that the Syrian refugee tragedy “is not a climate change story.” A 2012 paper in the Journal of Climate by Hoerling, et al. of NOAA indicated that the record 5-year Syrian drought from 2005 to 2011 that drove 800,000 farmers off their land and into the cities was linked to changing weather patterns associated with increasing sea surface temperatures. And a March 2015 paper by Kelley, et al. in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences stated, “No natural cause is apparent for these trends, whereas the observed drying and warming are consistent with model studies of the response to increases in greenhouse gases.” We don’t have to point to the potential future impacts of climate change. They are happening today. Were it not for our greenhouse gas emissions, there is a significant probability that the tragic drowning of that poor Syrian toddler, and many other deaths like his, might never have occurred.

    • Erika Spanger-Siegfried

      Thank you for weighing in, Chuck. You homed in on the area of the blog I found most challenging to navigate. And indeed, in some last minute editing, I downplayed the role of climate *today* more than is warranted. There is a climate dimension to this story, and as you point out, it’s at play now, not just something we should expect looking forward. As I’m sure you could hear in the blog, I don’t want to undercut the many other urgent dimensions at play in this human tragedy; things which, if tackled immediately would help real people.

      • Chuck Kutscher

        You’re welcome, Erika. Nice response.

  • DrG

    I agree with this but we need to retire the use of the word “Man” in this context. Many people are offended by it for understandable reasons. In a subtle way it supports oppression of half the world’s population and therefore is offensive and must be retired.

    • Erika Spanger-Siegfried

      Thanks for weighing in. It’s a fair point, and was confident I’d get this criticism. It’s my impression that the use of the term *has* largely been retired, for the reasons you mention. I chose to play on and juxtapose against the concept of “man’s inhumanity to man”, nevertheless, because it instantly conjurs for many Americans exactly what I want them to think of: compassion towards one another, and the lack thereof.

      • DrG

        Thanks for your response. I agree with everything you said.