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

September 4, 2015
Erika Spanger-Siegfried
Director of Strategic Climate Analytics

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.