Responsibility and climate refugees

I’m trying to fight my way out of a really bad depression. So this may not make a lot of sense.

I’d forgotten that I owed a blog post on climate change, and it’s one of those things that I regret saying yes to. I said yes because I like the person asking, without really reflecting on the problem that I don’t really know much about climate change other than I trust what people like Phil Berke and Deb Niemeier tell me about what we ought to do about it.

However, I do have some things to reflect on with environmental justice, accountability, and refugees. We’ve been confronted this week with families split at the US-Mexico border, and it is sickening. At the risk of being a scold, we should probably, along with our renewed outrage, remember that the state routinely breaks up families via the prison system and “family services.” It would be nice if the people organizing the women’s march would turn their attention here.

The thread that ties climate, DACA, Syria, and Central American refugees together is US power and our refusal to live with the consequences of our exercises of power. Last year in my classes on social welfare and social justice, I used DACA/DREAMERS as an exemplar of our failures in accountability and the moral problems those present, but the logic is equally applicable to Syrian and Central American refugees, and those who will be displaced by our contributions to and nonresponse to climate change.

At the time, I made an argument–and I still think it’s valid–that DREAMERS deserve special moral concern in policy ethics because they, as a class, exist because of policy. I get the critiques: that Dreamers are an appealing group of migrants, and that appeal of American integration, etc. privileges them already. Yes, we should respect the human rights of all migrants, and regular readers know I am of the “if capital can move across borders, why can’t workers” camp on migration. All that said, DREAMERs exist because of bad policy formulation, and bad policy formation should be disciplined by our ethics and willingness to assume democratic responsibility–in Iris Marion Young’s usage of the word. Power and responsibility have to be key democratic practices and virtues, instead of what the US typically does: creates policy that harms subgroups and benefits either elites or majorities, and then washes its hands of the consequences.

That is unacceptable, for many reasons. First off, taking in refugees as a matter of simple humanitarianism sounds like a more generous proposition than taking refugees because of our responsibility, and the former is kind and all that. Bbut altruism has limits, as our current wave of xenophobia and nationalism suggests. What is worse, altruism in this case obscures the relationship between power and accountability.

That problem replicates. Americans are provincial, willfully; few people you stop on the street are likely to be able to locate Syria on a map, talk about how a devastated Syria is strategically useful to for the Israelis, or how our activities in Afghanistan since forever have contributed to the elevation of ISIS. I strongly suspect that the response to any question about whether America should admit Syrians will come down to assessments of desert, both liberal (“they are human beings, we should care”) and conservative (“only once they have been thoroughly vetted, if at all) , rather than assessments of US culpability.

It is virtually impossible for me to cite an example where US policy culpability is more obvious than for the Dreamers. Yes, you can say, as many do, that their parents are culpable for entering the US illegally. But the people in question were children, guilty only of being with their families. We also then passed a policy that made it impossible for these children to apply for citizenship later. Policy created them as a class of migrants, and yet Americans still seem incapable of accepting responsibility for these policy decisions and making things right.

Responsibility for accepting and accommodating climate refugees looks like a pretty unrealistic proposition here in a country that has refused to acknowledge climate change as a problem, let alone govern itself with that reality in mind. The treaties and agreements governing how refugees are to be treated* were written for refugees seeking asylum from violent conflict. As a result, implicit in much refugee policy is that a) host countries are being altruistic instead of accountable, and b) a refugee might be able to return home once things have settled down. For climate refugees, home is unlikely to be habitable without large investments in adaption or at all, and they are likely to be perceived as being victims of unfortunate natural disasters rather than victims of a systematic failure in governance.

*in theory; these rules are flouted pretty regularly as they are unfunded mandates and voluntary agreements).