Climate Justice? Climate Refugee? Capitalism, Nationalism and Migration - Steph Davies

What are the links between nationalism, climate change and migration? Steph Davies takes a look. Originally published in May 2010.

Submitted by shifteditor1 on December 11, 2012

These days, everyone from Coca Cola to the BNP has a position on climate change. Since COP15 there has been a general shift to the right across Europe with politicians invoking fear through alarming statistics seemingly connected to migration and the rhetoric of precarity and emergency that surrounds climate change discourse prospering through the recession. Migration has become the scapegoat for a myriad of problems, thus legitimising increasing levels of repression against “illegals”. Whilst an analysis of capitalism in connection to climate change is becoming more common (although at times tokenistic), its’ relationship to nationalism, especially in connection to climate change issues, is often overlooked. The development of the “climate refugee” further perpetuates this model, where nation states are called upon to manage migration and control populations.

The “climate justice” movement is a direct response to the failings of international democracy to deal with the threat of climate change, and is gaining momentum, as expressed through the mobilisations around COP15 and the World Conference on Climate Change and Mother Earth Rights in Cochabamba, Bolivia. But what are the limits of this it’s new vocabulary?

COP15 and Migration

In Copenhagen about 2,000 people participated in the “Climate No Borders” demonstration, targeting the Ministry of Defence. The demonstration aimed to highlight the complexity of issues surrounding migration and climate change. The Danish Prime Minister -now leader of NATO- was responsible for promoting a reinforcement of Fortress Europe through the expansion of organisations such as Frontex, the controversial armed border agency, and “UADs” (“unmanned autonomous drones) as a response to the perceived threat of increased migration.

The “International Campaign for Climate Refugees” (ICCR) was launched at the Klimaforum during COP15. Delegates from Sudan and Bangladesh were among those calling for “a new legal framework for climate refugees to realise their social, political, cultural and economic rights.” This “framework” would result in an opening up of the Geneva Convention and is supported by NGOs such as the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) and the Forced Migration Organisation (FMO). But what would a climate refugee look like? Without wishing to undermine or belittle those who are currently displaced or endangered due to environmental factors, can such a category ever be implemented? Does it not add further legitimacy to the racist methodology employed by the border regime? A regime that relies on the concept of “good” and “bad” migrants, where “victims” and “opportunists”, “economic”, “political” (and now maybe “environmental”) are segregated and forced to prove their worthiness, need and threat?

False Solutions and “Post-Politics”?

During COP15 the CJA (“Climate Justice Action”) and CJN (“Climate Justice Now”) networks demanded an analysis of concepts such as “climate colonialism” (or “CO2lonialism”) and “ecological debt” in an attempt to understand climate change as a systemic problem, the result of capitalist expansion and colonialist systems of domination. In a reader analysing the “post-politics” of climate change, it was argued that the CJA and CJN are “pushing the tension between the liberal carbon consensus and a properly anti-capitalist analysis to its limits.”

The Climate Camp model is also situated somewhere within this problematic maze. However, whilst the CCA has also highlighted “market-driven approaches” as a red herring, it has failed to out population control as a “false solution”. The CCA is currently dealing with some difficult tensions, briefly considering a rebrand to become “Climate Justice UK”. The discussion paper published after the Bristol gathering asked “whether CCA is first and foremost a movement against climate change, or a movement against capitalism”?

Another discussion paper reveals further attempts to confront these complex issues. After the Amsterdam meeting the CJA cited: “Climate justice means recognising that the capitalist growth paradigm, which leads to over extraction, overproduction and overconsumption stands in deep contrast to the biophysical limits of the planet and the struggle for social justice.”

Both the CCA and the CJA are engaging in a discussion around what the CJA terms “colonising capitalism”, and the “logic of profit”. Now is the time to engage with the difficult issue of capitalism’s bed fellow: nationalism. In order to acknowledge issues connected with what the CCA terms “socially just solutions”, it is essential that the dogma of nationalism and its methodology of authoritarianism are confronted as an essential component of the capitalist growth paradigm. The issues surrounding climate induced migration are inextricably linked to this. State sanctioned definitions such as the proposed “climate refugee” category will always reinforce these issues.

Re-Examining the Geneva Convention

The term “climate refugee” was coined is the 1970s and has been in a process of constant appraisal ever since. In 2006 the Maldives called for a re-opening of the Geneva Convention to include “climate refugees”, but this was scrapped by the UNHCR (United Nations Human Rights Commission), who “noted that most receiving States actually want to restrict the refugee regime further, rather than extend it in the current form”. During the COP15 summit, the IOM (International Organisation for Migration) and the UNHCR, failed once again to engage with the debate surrounding issues connected with climate refugees. In their joint platform towards the end of the conference they questioned the appropriateness of the summit for these types of discussions. Questions posed by the Bangladeshi and Sudanese delegates were left unanswered.

NGOs such as the EJF and FMO call for a greater level of dignity for those entrapped in the asylum system. However, their demands for a new category of “climate refugee” further segregates and fail to acknowledge practically the complexities of causes that lead to migration. It is important to acknowledge and act in solidarity with those already displaced by climate change, but any prescriptive attempts to create a category of climate refugee by opening the 1949 Geneva convention can never be sufficient, and endanger the already shaky foundations on which it stands. Already asylum seekers with so-called “good” cases are frequently deported on the grounds of a lack of “proof”. How can we ever really adapt this system which shows so little regard for the basic human “rights” it supposedly enshrines to include such a disparate category as climate refugee?

Members of the BNP and the far right attempt to use the Geneva convention as a tool to legitimise their hysterical claims. In an open letter to the Independent Police Complaints Commission, some members argued: “The Geneva Convention clearly states that displacement by immigration is a crime against humanity. Thus any displacement would be Ethnocide.” The EDL also use this rhetoric, calling for all nations, from Israeli, to Hindi, to stand up against the threat of Sharia law, commonly citing the transformation of churches into mosques as a further example of this “ethnocide”.


The BNP, the nation’s “true green party” argues that: “Unlike the fake ‘Greens’…the BNP is the only party to recognise that overpopulation – whose primary driver is immigration, as revealed by the government’s own figures – is the cause of the destruction of our environment.”

Organisations such as the Optimum Population Trust develop this argument through various campaigns such as “PopOffsets”, which aims to make its supporters “carbon neutral” by funding contraceptive programmes across the globe. James Lovelock and David Attenborough use the logic of the Gaia Hypothesis as a reason for tougher immigration policies in order to aid the planet in “self-regulation”.

The demands for limits on population are not only the remit of the right, as the Permaculture Association’s recently revised ethics demonstrate. The much discussed “third ethic” previously entitled “fair shares” (in conjunction with “earth care” and “people care”) has been replaced with: “setting limits to population and consumption”. An explanatory text acknowledges that “setting limits to population is not about limiting people’s free movement, tight border controls and a one child policy.” However, it fails to outline practically what a “limit to population” would involve. Who would set these limits? How would they be enforced? Once again, authoritarianism is not only unchallenged, but inferred.

Liberal Nationalism

The concept of “climate justice” necessitates an analysis of the displacement caused by climate change and the “solutions” proposed by nation states. In order to truly bring about climate justice we must acknowledge the myriad of reasons that lead to migration, not through the perpetuation of systems encouraging a victim mentality but in opening the borders, enabling free movement and stopping practices which make it impossible for people to stay in their homes. As the Anarchist Federation observed: “Nationalism can be liberal, cosmopolitan and tolerant, defining the ‘common interest’ of the people in ways which do not require a single race”. This liberal application of nationalism will only increase as “climate refugees” are enshrined in law, with those excluded further disempowered.

Migration and globalisation have disrupted fixed notions of class, with the conditions of individuals changing greatly through their precarious relationships to nation states. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that the “UN must take proper measures to realize people’s rights to the freedom of movement within and between state borders.” The ICCR calls for “a separate Safeguard Protocol (SP) that should be framed to address climate victims under a rights and justice framework…as victims of global injustice caused by unequal and undemocratic global architecture.” This “global architecture” is incapable of redressing any kind of balance or creating justice. In order to move beyond the dogma of victim and perpetrator it is essential to end all forms of migrations management which divide and categorise.

Reinforcing the Borders

Contrary to the picture painted by “populationists” climate change will not result in millions of people seeking asylum in Europe. The majority of those displaced through the impacts of climate change in Africa move within that continent. In January 2010 Israel began work on a second wall, stretching between Rafah and Eliat, in an attempt to secure the nation from the “surge” of migrants from Africa. A combination of a lack of resources required to embark on a journey to the EU, the increased militarisation of the borders of Europe, and the desire to stay closer to countries of origins means that many migrants will not travel to the UK.
“Fortress India” is being constructed along the Assam-Bangladesh border, inspired by Israel’s wall in the West Bank. On completion, the fence will be as long as America’s 2,000-mile border with Mexico, which is currently being reinforced using several different technologies employed by the US “Fence Lab” including concrete, razor wire, electric shocks and increased patrols and surveillance. 80,000 Indian soldiers of the Border Security Force “defend” the border, which has been legitimised by the impending threat of increased migration from Bangladesh. But the death toll is rising on both sides, with people being shot indiscriminately in order to ensure “national security”. Climate change is the perfect framework through which nation states can rationalise and reinforce their borders, from Bangladesh, to Calais, where migrant camps are routinely cleared by order of the Mayor who promotes “sustainable development” and a “preserved environment, a city pleasant to be in”.

In Bolivia the People’s Conference asked some difficult questions: “What means should be adopted to confront climate change migration? Why talk about migrants and not climate change refugees? How can the human rights of climate change migrants be guaranteed? How can developed countries compensate climate change migrants?”

Definitions emerging from the forum included “climate refugees”, “forced migrants” and the “climate displaced”. These concepts are useful in unpacking some of the main issues in relation to climate change and migration, especially in acknowledging the impacts of the freedom of capital and resources in contrast with people. However, the demands of the people’s assembly still call for legally enshrined definitions and aid funds, rather than challenging the border regime.

It is important to act in solidarity now to ensure that those displaced by climate change can be supported. Nation states will not provide the framework within which to do this. Neither will arbitrary definitions which further divide and rule, and fail to account for the unforeseen impacts of climate change. An anti-authoritarian response, including an opening of the borders, is the only possible methodology through which to confront the issue of climate change and migration. Any response to the threat of climate change seeking to acknowledge the “rights” of a specific group will fail to usurp the authoritarianism that protects economic expansion. Capitalism must be analysed in relation to the nationalism which ensures its continuation and this cannot happen within the framework of the “climate refugee”.

Steph Davies is part of the No Borders network, and has helped with several Climate Camps. She hopes that this year will see a greater engagement with issues connected to climate change and migration from networks fighting for social change.