Distributing the Costs of Climate Change

In an event sponsored by the Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis (SCEPA) and the student group oikos, Professor Randall S. Abate of Florida A&M University College of Law lectured and led a discussion on the issue of climate refugees.  

As broadening swaths of earth are rendered uninhabitable by— let’s not mince words— capitalism, villages currently, subsequently nations, will be forced to seek relocation.  Climate refugees—those who are forced to emigrate as the land they’ve lived on is transformed to either desert or ocean—must appeal for clemency from the very countries that have disproportionately contributed to their problem.  In the midst of these slow-burning kinds of genocides are numerous legal imbroglios, petty feuds, impolitic discourses, and opportunities for redistribution from poor to rich.

 Legal Limbos and Limits

As Professor Abate detailed, climate refugees not only inhabit a material limbo between stable homes, but also a legal one between international environmental law and international human rights law.  Lawyers in these two fields, in Abate’s estimation, are frequently at odds, and professional bickering prolongs the legal void in which many displaced by climate change find themselves.  Meanwhile, this lack of a legal framework for climate refugees lends legitimation to governments who may decline when endangered nations petition them for less imminently submerged places to live.  The presenter gave the example of Australia’s refusal to open its doors when residents of Tuvalu—a country projected to be underwater within a few decades—sought visas en masse.

Alongside these international legal absences are domestic institutional limitations.  In the U.S., for example, FEMA lacks authority to provide meaningful assistance  to climate refugees.  As a disaster relief agency, it is only  authorized to help after disaster strikes and may only provide temporary relocation assistance.  But relocating climate refugees must be permanent and proactive.

At the longer-term international level, the sovereignty of nations that become completely submerged looms both as a legal confusion and a horrifying reminder of the potential consequences of climate change.  If the people of Tuvalu do move to Australia, will Tuvalu retain national sovereignty?  Will its people be politically independent from Australia?  But on a certain level, legal ambiguities of this nature strike me as somewhat absurd.  I imagine a lawyer, bedecked in suit and tie, transplanted to the world of Mad Max: Fury Road, slamming an injunction on the hood of a masked warrior’s car.


 Paying for Climate Change

On a more immediate note, Abate detailed some examples of intranational climate refugee relocation within the U.S..  When an indigenous community in Kivalina, Alaska had their home threatened by rising sea levels, the federal government estimated the cost of relocating the group inland to be about one million per person.  The indigenous people in Kivalina sued two dozen multinational oil and gas companies, seeking to recoup their cost of moving, but their case was dismissed at every level, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear their case.

This example of indigenous relocation caused some audience members to become miffed at, not just the injustice, but also the fiscal irresponsibility of climate change.  If relocating climate refugees costs one million a head, we can’t afford not to not destroy the world.  For me, this was a reminder of how the costs of climate change are unequally borne, an issue I raised in my write-up for an earlier oikos event on climate justice.  While some see their homes destroyed due to climate change, others pay taxes to relocate them.  Still others, instead of paying taxes to government, sue them for passing environmental protections; these parties don’t seem to be worried at the expense of climate change— for them, it has been very profitable.

If the costs of climate change are to make us change course, we need to ensure those costs are borne by the people actually changing the climate.  Treating climate change as a “global problem” of the “anthropocene” for which “we” are all responsible— this obscures the fact that a small segment of society actually fights quite hard to change the climate, while many other segments oppose them.

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