A compelling discussion on climate migration took place on March 28th at Full Circle House, in the final session of the Brussels-based forum’s three-part series on borders and future migration.
The assembled panel, which consisted of an academic, an artist, and a professional activist, explored a number of different issues relating to climate change and migration flows. It was followed by an equally lively Q&A session with the audience.
The panel’s preliminary remarks
The first to speak was Alice Bell, a former historian of science and now Head of Communications at the UK-based climate charity 10:10. Dr Bell noted how, despite increasingly anomalous weather patterns and noticeable food price fluctuations in the West, it is still relatively easy – and common – for Westerners to “insulate” themselves from the worst effects of climate change. She went on to emphasise the need for citizens everywhere to work collectively to combat the significant threat that climate change now poses for the possibility of organised human existence. Moreover, she highlighted the importance of people around the world thinking of themselves as a collective, or, as she put it, “as globally-engaged citizens”.
Next to offer his remarks was Kooj Chuhan, a digital artist, filmmaker, and activist. Mr Chuhan stressed the need to overcome what he called “psychological distancing” among Western citizens. According to Mr Chuhan, this is the tendency among Westerners to regard people of the Global South – including, but not limited to, those most adversely affected by climate change – as unimportant, or indeed irrelevant, to their individual concerns. Mr Chuhan went on to remark upon psychological distancing’s relationship to geographical distance, claiming that the two often, if not invariably, correlate with one another. Lastly, he noted its historical connection to colonial discourse, in particular the Western tendency to ‘Other’ those suffering abuses for which we in the West are largely responsible.
The third and final panelist to comment was François Gemenne, a FNRS senior research associate at the University of Liège and a leading specialist in environmental geopolitics and migration dynamics. Two of Dr Gemenne’s remarks were particularly noteworthy. First, he pointed out that, although migrants have (rightly) received a large amount of recent media attention, and elicited a significant degree of sympathy and concern in the West, a sadly neglected class of individuals is the non-migrant: this is the person who is unable to leave his or her country of origin due to (e.g.) poverty, age, or lack of education. Dr Gemenne argued that the (climate) non-migrant is at least as deserving of the West’s sympathy and concern as the migrant is.
Second, Dr Gemenne argued forcefully that the categories used by Westerners to think about climate change and migration need to be reassessed. In particular, he claimed that the conceptual distinction between the “economic” and the “climate” migrant is largely a Western construct, which is not recognised by citizens of the Global South whose economic livelihood is often heavily, if not wholly, determined by climate fluctuations. Dr Gemenne also argued that we should regard climate change as a form of persecution toward the world’s most vulnerable citizens, and that “climate migrants” should (also) be regarded as economic migrants as well as political refugees, given that the majority of them leave their countries of origin as a result of Western policy decisions.
Further interesting questions and topics were raised by the panellists and members of the audience during the Q&A.
Dr Bell argued forcefully – and to the universal agreement of both the panelists and the audience – for lowering the voting age to 16, her reason being that it is young people who stand the most to gain, and lose, by contemporary climate-impacting policy decisions. Both Mr Chuhan and Dr Gemenne then emphasised the importance of education in climate activism, with Dr Gemenne in particular stressing the need for informing current policymakers rather than just young people. “We need to educate our 60 year olds, rather than just 16 year olds,” he said. “Otherwise, by the time the 16 year olds of today are in power, it might already be too late to save our planet.”
Dr Gemenne then went on to highlight the importance of fighting climate change not merely as a consumer, but as a citizen. “It is not one’s flights, or one’s car use, or the meals one eats that contribute to emissions,” he noted. “It’s the money in your bank account, invested by banks in fossil fuel companies in order to ensure high interest rates for depositors.” Dr Gemenne also argued that if we continue to think in terms of individual consumption behaviour as the sole means to effect climate action, it would be a “huge victory for neoliberalism”.
Finally, both Dr Gemenne and Mr Chuhan emphasised the need for pragmatism among climate activists. In particular, Dr Gemenne noted that, although the overthrowing of capitalism might perhaps be desirable in the long-run, activists must be realistic: the best chance of saving our planet, he argued, was to try to find a version of capitalism that is environmentally sustainable. “We need to make capitalism prioritise long-term, rather than short-term profits,” he said. This sentiment was echoed by Mr Chuhan’s own remarks about the need for “Hopeful Realism”, that is, a realism that “remains hopeful, but that doesn’t deny what needs to be done to affect positive change in the world”.