Sunday, September 19, 2010

Climate change, capitalism, migration and movements

Climate change, capitalism, migration and movements

Climate change and extreme climate events do not occur in a social vacuum. The present social climate is that of capitalism run amok. Communities, particularly poor communities, women and people of color live in vulnerable situations, and are over run by major shifts in climate. The rich, the able-bodied, straight men and white people can escape droughts and floods far more easily than others

Ramzan, the month of fasting for Muslims around the world has just ended. For the 13 million people, mostly Muslims, displaced by the floods in Southern Pakistan, will not be fasting by choice. There is almost no food or water to drink anywhere.

Though the scale of displacement in Pakistan is immense, it is not new. Migration as a result of catastrophic climate incidents has increased to immense levels in the previous decades. The United Nations estimated that about 125,000 people were initially displaced by the drought in Ethiopia and Somalia earlier this year and 1.8 million displaced by the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004.

The results are almost always the same. Many die and face malnutrition. Those that are 'settled' are placed in to refugee camps with limited economic choice, cultural opportunities or social support. Those that can, migrate in to large urban centres, residing in decrepit housing, facing heightened xenophobia and looking to move again – either back to places they were displaced from or to other places of economic sustenance – the Middle East, Europe, Australia, Northern Europe and North America – where the cycles of dispossession and racism continue.

For resistance movements in Western Cities, a three fold approach is immediately required: dismantle the organizations, banks and ideas that are furthering climate change, war and occupation; solidify efforts to build a migrant justice analysis in all forms of organizing ensuring the right of free movement and build relations across anti-war, environmental justice, anti-racist, anti-poverty, feminist, queer liberation, disability rights and migrant justice movements.

Climate Change

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, clearly not a front runner on this issue, global warming is the average increase in the temperature of the atmosphere near the Earth's surface and in the troposphere, which is changing global climate patterns. Global warming refers to the warming that occurs due to increased emissions of greenhouse gases from human activities. Climate change is linked to increasingly more erratic climate events – droughts, famines, floods and earthquakes – which will cause immense social and human upheaval. Though climatologists generally refrain from blaming warming for this drought or that flood, since so many other factors also affect the day's weather, the recent events inRussia, Pakistan and India are eerily similar [1] to models already predicted. It is important to note that some extreme climate events – such as the Indian Ocean Tsunami – are not necessarily directly related to climate change but are extreme climate events that impact human migration.

Professor Norman Myers [2] of Oxford University has argued that by 2050, "when global warming takes hold there could be as many as 200 million people [displaced] by disruptions of monsoon systems and other rainfall regimes, by droughts of unprecedented severity and duration and by sea-level rise and coastal flooding". That is an astounding number – if the world population were 9 billion at that time, 200 million is 1in 45 people. Now as with most things to do with climate change, even though this number is most often quoted, Professor Myers has reportedly refused to commit, saying that the numbers may be 'notably higher or lower'.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the leading climate change research body, initially warned: "the gravest effects of climate change may be those on human migration as millions are displaced by shoreline erosion, coastal flooding and severe drought" (IPCC,1990:20). It has since changed its position, stating "Human populations show significant tendencies to adapt to inter-annual variability of climate via migration, although migration may be the last of a complex set of coping strategies". That is to say that people migrate out but often return. Also conflicts that emerge from scarcity as a result of climate change, or development projects that emerge post-extreme climate events force people to move are not accounted for by the IPCC.


It is impossible to speak about environmental degradation without holding to account corporate globalization. Migration resulting from environmental havoc must be seen in the context of neoliberal exploitation.

Examine, briefly, the geo-political relations Pakistan or Haiti and the cursed purveyors of free markets and elite profit (i.e. the massive banks, corporations and 'developed' states). Pakistan is crippled under an IMF loan that has since September 2008 led to over two dozen price hikes of basic subsidies, a slashing of public services many times over and a wage and hiring freeze in most public sector jobs. The six decade long economic blockade of Haiti or the overthrow of a democratic government are commonly known facts that led to a weakening of most social support systems far before the earthquake hit.

An estimated 10 million people are forced to migrate each year by 'development' related projects. Such projects include mining, massive hydro-electric dams, forced industrialization and more. Paid for almost entirely by foreign debt, and profited for mostly by western corporations –these projects are responsible for the large scale pollution that is accelerating global warming.

Climate Change and extreme climate events do not occur in a social vacuum. The present social climate is that of capitalism run amok. Communities, particularly poor communities, women and people of color live in vulnerable situations, and are over run by major shifts in climate. The rich, the able-bodied, straight men and white people can escape droughts and floods far more easily than others.

Ongoing wars and occupations (be it military or economic) are also intertwined. The proposed Trans-Afghanistan pipeline, 1,680 kms of pipelines from the Caspian Sea to Turkmenistan through Afghanistan into Pakistan and then to India, has been linked to US military aggression in Afghanistan which has destabilized Pakistan, forced debts on the country which has particularly hampered relief efforts following the floods.

Just earlier this month, the MV Sun Sea landed on the shores of Occupied Coast Salish Territories (British Columbia) with 500 migrants looking for residency. Many of these people have been displaced by the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2005 or more recently the military onslaught of 2009. The combination of armed attack, climate change, development of tourist resorts in traditional Tamil territory has made life extremely difficult for people who are forced to migrate.


The impact of climate change and extreme climate events differs for migrants based on locale. For those recently displaced primary concerns include access to basic services such as education, food, water, health, housing and economic opportunity. For migrants arriving in large urban centres in developing countries (a process that may continue years after the sudden climatic event) – struggles include all of the above plus increased political disenfranchisement and xenophobia. For people immigrating abroad – struggles include all these plus entrenched racism, enforced temporary work and increasing precarity and looming threat of deportation.

Migrants displaced by environmental impacts are already being increasing called Environmental Refugees and Environmental Migrants. There is a whole new field of study developing and the bleeding heart charities are not far behind. The legal implications are of course on many people's minds – are people arriving in the western world displaced by environmental refugees and therefore 'deserving' of benevolence? Or migrants moving for a better economic future and therefore must join the mythical immigration queue?

In Canada, people displaced by 'development related' projects cannot claim refugee status. Considering that over three-quarters of the world's mining companies are headquartered in Canada, organizations that are responsible for large scale climate atrocities and human displacement, the Canadian closed border policies (except for exploitable temporary workers or rich, western-educated professionals) seems to go against the grain of logic or reason.

The separation of migrants as refugee claimants, as those escaping war or environmental change, as students, as visitors and as temporary workers serves to create artificial borders in an extremely inter-twined decision. People migrate to move away from local events and/or specific economic or personal choices. People’s migration choices are not completely one of refuge or economic decision making. To use artificial categories serves to create lists of deserving and non-deserving and must increasingly be challenged. In a world not yet recovered from centuries of mostly white imperial colonization,

The IPCC writes, "Immigrant labor often benefits the donor and the host cities/ countries. However, perceptions of regional/national identity, language/cultural differences, and fears of unemployment may contribute to increased hostilities between immigrants and nationals in years to come." In countries bound up in colonial logic – i.e. North America, Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Turkey and the Gulf States – where an entire cultural production of self-aggrandizement occurs parallel to hatred and charity for others, migration(of any scale) is often seen with contempt and suspicion.

Anti-Immigrant rhetoric and xenophobia are the oldest tools of populist right-wing extremism. Be it the British National Party of 80s UK, or the Tea Party movement in the United States right now, conservative movements mobilize ingrained colonial attitudes and mass-media to distract from local corporate greed and against perceived outsiders. In the coming decades as climate change, extreme climate events and military and corporate aggression exacerbates, it is essential that these anti-immigrant tropes be culled at the onset.


It is imperative the local social movements that fight for material difference in individual lives while organizing for wholesale transformative change do so in alliance with struggles in other arenas.

Material difference means working to shut down the factories, the banks, the corporations, as well as the ideas and ideologues of increased climate catastrophe, resource exploitation and human exploitation.

Material difference also means increased access to basic entitlements – education, housing, food, healthcare, jobs, justice and dignity - for all people, irrespective of immigration status. It means organizing to stop the deportations of individuals while targeting the air line firms, the immigration machinery and the detention centres that allow for this to continue. It also means going after the employers that profit from attacks on migrants as well as the corporation and sweatshop cities that further disenfranchisement.

All-encompassing transformative change requires linking together separate movements that are all different fronts in the global anti-imperialist struggle to create the basic conditions where people can participate in every decision that impacts their lives.




(Also, read the No One Is Illegal – Vancouver statement on colonization, migration and displacement at

Special thanks to E.Wheatley, M.Adrangi, M.Heinrichs, T. Black and H.Walia for advice.

Syed Hussan is a writer and activist based in Toronto who struggles for migrant justice and indigenous sovereignty. He is presently being criminalized for community organizing related to the G20 Convergence in Toronto in June 2010. Email:

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