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Environmental Refugees: How Many, How Bad?

Ethan Goffman The Dust Bowl: Blowing in the Wind Now the wind grew strong and hard and it worked at the rain crust in the corn fields. Little by little the sky was darkened by the mixing dust, and the wind felt over the earth, loosened the dust, and carried it away. The wind grew stronger. The rain crust broke and the dust lifted up out of the fields and drove gray plumes into the air like sluggish smoke. --John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath The Okies who populate The Grapes of Wrath are an early example of environmental refugees, people driven from their homes by the forces of nature. With the grasslands of the southern Great Plains torn away to make room for agriculture, and a period of drought, erosion was rampant. Timothy Egan describes the appearance of the first black duster, in 1930: People called the government to find out what was up with this dirty, swirling thing in the sky. The strange thing about it, Dust Storm near Dalhart, Texas, 1936 the weather bureau observers said, Texas Council for the Humanities Resource Center (3809was that it rolled, like a mobile hill A South Second Street, Austin, Texas 78704) of crud, and it was black.1 Throughout the 1930s, windstorms swept vast clouds of dust, dirt, and grit across the prairie. As Steinbeck describes it, men and women huddled in their houses, and they tied handkerchiefs over their noses when they went out, and wore goggles to protect their eyes.2 With the land producing little or no food, some one-third of the farmers in the center of the dust bowl chose to migrate,3 many following Route 66 west to California, which had long advertised for migrant labor. Those families which had lived on a little piece of land, who had lived and died on forty acres, had eaten or starved on the produce of forty acres, now had the whole West to rove in. And they scampered about looking for work; and the highways were streams of people, and the ditch banks were lines of people.4
1 2

Steinbeck, J. 1939. The Grapes of Wrath. (88). New York: Penguin, 1992, p. 88. Ibid., p. 5. 3 Egan, T. 2006. The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, p. 10. 4 Steinbeck, J. 1939. The Grapes of Wrath. (88). New York: Penguin, 1992, p.385. 2006 CSA Released June 2006

Goffman: Environmental Refugees

Ironically, many of these were recent immigrants to the dust bowl states, enticed by cheap land, whose farming practices had helped create the conditions driving their flight. Critics have pointed out that The Grapes of Wrath is rife with inaccuracies, fitting Steinbecks socialist beliefs to create a mythology of a scorned people The Dust Bowl driven from their homes by the actions of distant, PBS Online, The American Experience (2100 Crystal Drive, Arlington, Virginia 22202) greedy capitalists. The novel emphasizes the machinery of capitalismboth literally in the form of the tractor, and figuratively in the banking systemdriving families from their homes: One man on a tractor can take the place of twelve or fourteen families. Pay him a wage and take all the crop.5 Yet the hardships of the dust bowl can better be attributed to bad luck in the occurrence of successive droughts, and to ignorance about how to manage natural resources. A massive conversion to agriculture preceded the dust bowl: in just five years, 1925 to 1930, another 5.2 million acres of native sod went under the plow in the southern plainsan area the size of two Yellowstone National Parks.6 The area was also victimized by agricultural practices unsuited for that particular environment with its low rainfall. For most settlers, their farming experience was based on conditions in the more humid eastern United States, so the crops and cultivation practices they chose often were not suitable for the Great Plains. But the earliest settlements occurred during a wet cycle, and the first crops flourished, so settlers were encouraged to continue practices that would later have to be abandoned.7 Lack of crop rotation, particularly over planting of wheat, was one mistake.8 New technology, such as the disc plow, left the land more vulnerable than ever, while marginal land was increasingly exploited, causing greater soil erosion.9

Ibid., p. 441. Egan, T. 2006. The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, p. 58. 7 National Drought Mitigation Center. 2005. Drought in the Dust Bowl Years. Accessed May 12, 2006. 8 School of Natural Resources, University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The Dust Bowl, Causes. Accessed May 12, 2006. 9 National Drought Mitigation Center. 2005. Drought in the Dust Bowl Years. Accessed May 12, 2006. CSA Discovery Guides Released June 2006

Goffman: Environmental Refugees

Not just natural, but economic factors were crucial in driving the Okies to pack up and leave. Indeed, the intertwining of factors, so important in most cases of environmental refugees, is crucial to understanding the dust bowl. Vast increases in agricultural production had driven prices down, forcing farmers to adopt new technologies, and to farm marginal land, thus stripping the land of its natural defenses. The unfortunate coinciding of the Great Depression with a series of droughts made the dust bowl years a paradigmatic expression of natural disaster and environmental flight. The reaction to the dust bowl came partly out of Washington, DC, in new policies that paid farmers not to plant crops. This attacked the economic part of the problem, the oversupply of crops. The ecological solution came from new farm policy. President Franklin D. Roosevelt favored massive tree Minnesota farm blighted by planting,10 although this was in disharmony with the drought, 1936 Great Plains ecosystem. More effective were new soil conservation strategies favored by Hugh Benp5/numberone.htm Minnesota Climatology Working Group nett, the head of the newly created Soil Erosion (State Climatology Office, Department Service. He initiated community farming districts of Soil, Water, and Climate, 439 Borlaug Hall, Saint Paul, MN 55108) where everyone would agree to practice a strict set of conservation rules, rotating crops, fallowing land, abandoning tear-up-the-earth methods of plowing.11 Replanting grasslands was another part of the conservation effort. New technology allowed better irrigation use of the vast Ogallala aquifer, unknown before the 20th Century. Wind breaks, crop rotation, and surface cover are some of the techniques used to prevent erosion.12 Finally, the end of a period of droughts in 1940 signaled the conclusion of the dust bowl. New environmental policies have prevented a repeat of such conditions. Explains one analyst, the subsidy system continued through the present and the Soil Conservation Service (now the Natural Resources Conservation Service) created a stable niche promoting wise agricultural land management and soil mapping.13 Humans had learned how to work the land, within its natural environment, to avoid the conditions that spawn environmental refugees. Whether, and how well, we are remembering these lessons, and

Egan, T. 2006. The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, p. 224. 11 Ibid., p. 225. 12 School of Natural Resources, University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The Dust Bowl, Prevention. Accessed May 12, 2006. 13 Cunfer, G. EH.Net Encyclopedia. August 19, 2004. The Dust Bowl. Accessed May 12, 2006. CSA Discovery Guides Released June 2006

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applying them on a global scale with continually changing technologies, remains a work in progress. What is an Environmental Refugee? Driven from their homes by natural disasters, drought, flood, famine, and other environmental causes, environmental refugees seem to be growing in number across the globe. One recent estimate puts the number at 25 million people worldwide, with a potential eventual increase to 200 million within 50 years.14 These numbers are problematic, however, given questions about the meaning of the term environmental refugee and the difficulty of determining the major causes of much migration. Still, it is clear that refugees from environmental events and stresses, from the dust bowl to the recent tsunami, are a problem that does not fit official categories, but has recently been given increased currency.

A group of Jewish children waving goodbye to friends in Buchenwald DP camp. A Teacher's Guide to the Holocaust (Florida Center for Instructional Technology, College of Education, University of South Florida, Tampa, FL 33620-5650)

Following World War II, hosts of refugees languishing in camps throughout Europe led to international standards to deal with the problem systematically. The roots of this refugee problem were clear: war, political status, and fear of persecution. The adopted definition of refugee sprung clearly from these circumstances. In 1951, the United Nations General Assembly adopted resolution 429 which defined refugees as those having: well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.15

14 15

Myers, N. 1997. Environmental refugees. Population and Environment 19(2): 167-182, p. 167. Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. 1951, Geneva, Switzerland: Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Accessed June 2, 2006, CSA Discovery Guides Released June 2006

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Still the main initial United Nations goal has long been repatriation, or return of refugees to their original homes. When circumstances make this impossible or undesirable, resettlement occurs. Resettlement may be in the immediate location to which refugees have fled, or in some third party location that agrees to take them in (often a developed country). Until a permanent home can be established, however, it is up to the United Nations, helped by numerous nongovernmental organizations, to provide food, shelter, medical care, and other basic services to the refugees. Resolution 429 set a precedent of haven granted on a political basis. Over the years, as refugees increasingly came from developing countries, new strains were placed on the United Nations. By the end of the 20th century, Miskito Indians from Nicaragua wait for a food the definition of refugee had been distribution at a Honduran camp during the extended, bringing international pro1980s. tection to people who are forced to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees move for a complex range of reasons (Case Postale 2500, CH-1211 Genve 2 Dpt, including persecution, widespread huSuisse) man rights abuses, armed conflict and 16 generalized violence. Even the extended definition, however, does not cover environmental refugees. As one source explains, many people forced into exile for ecological reasons have to claim political refugee status. For instance, in 1992 the thousands of people who fled the drought in Mozambique had political refuge status in Zambia.17 The term environmental refugee is of recent vintage, attributed to Lester Brown of the World Watch Institute in the late 1970s. More recently, Norman Myers has defined environmental refugees as people who can no longer gain a secure livelihood in their homelands because of drought, soil erosion, desertification, deforestation and other environmental problems, together with associated problems of population pressures and profound poverty.18 Yet the concept of environmental refugee has been criticized as vague and simplistic. In a United Nations High Commission on Refugees working paper, Richard Black argues that although environmental degradation and catastrophe may be imUnited Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. 2003. Partnership: An Operations Management Handbook for UNHCR's Partners. Revised Edition. Geneva, Switzerland: UNHCR. Accessed June 2, 2006, p. 8. 17 Julienne, M. Eco-refugees. The Environment Times. Accessed May 12, 2006. 18 Myers, N. 13th Economic Forum, Prague. 2005. Environmental Refugees: An Emergent Security Issue. Accessed May 15, 2006. CSA Discovery Guides Released June 2006

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portant factors in the decision to migrate, and issues of concern in their own right, their conceptualization as a primary cause of forced displacement is unhelpful and unsound intellectually, and unnecessary in practical terms.19 Black and other scholars critique the way environmental refugees are sub-categorized, which varies from author to author. Does displacement due to an earthquake, for instance, qualify for the same kind of status as displacement from farmland that is so degraded as to be useless? The problem can also be approached by asking how different environmental refugees are from economic and political refugees. Again we run into problems, as the worlds political hot-spots correlate closely with environmental degradation. According to the Population Reference Bureau, Environmental scarcity is never the sole cause of conflict, but it is often an aggravating or contributing factor. Future efforts at conflict prevention and resolution should take the role that environmental scarcity plays into account.20 Regarding the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, Peter Uvin shows how analysts view the tragedy through the lenses of their own belief systems. One view holds up Rwanda, a small, landlocked, predominantly agricultural country with the highest population density in Africa, as a prime example of the disastrous consequences of resource scarcity, while another attributes the Rwandan genocide exclusively to processes of ethnic identity and political strife. Proponents of these schools tend to seek no further than their own preferred causation and remain uninterested in the ideas of the other21 The effects of academic compartmentalization and the need for more interdisciplinary study are graphically illustrated here. Environmental, economic, and political degradation are undoubtedly connected. Categories remain permeable, for instance in ongoing migrations to the United States; Though nominally economic migrants, many of the estimated 1 million people who flood illegally into the United States annually from Mexico are in part driven by declining ecological conditions in a country where 60 percent of the land is classified as severely degraded.22 One classification may cause the other or, more likely, each drives the other in a vicious circle of reinforcing degradations. Environmental refugee as a term is, today, basically perceived as a way of simplifying the understanding of a situation that is usually much more complex than what can be illustrated by environmental explanations, argues one social scientist.23


Black, R. Journal of Humanitarian Assistance. 2001. Environmental refugees: Myth or reality? Accessed May 15, 2006. p. 2. 20 Kennedy, B. Population Reference Bureau. 2001. Environmental Scarcity and the Outbreak of Conflict. ontentID=1142. Accessed May 15, 2006. 21 Uvin, P. 1996. Tragedy in Rwanda: The political ecology of conflict. Environment. 38(3): 6-15. p. 7. 22 Migration and Tourism. 2000. Our Planet Magazine, United Nations Environment Program. Accessed May 19, 2006. 23 Haug, R. 2002. Forced migration, processes of return and livelihood construction among pastoralists in Northern Sudan. Disasters 26(1): 70-84, p. 74. CSA Discovery Guides Released June 2006

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All of this would leave the term environmental refugee looking problematic, yet the term is useful for describing numerous real-world situations. It would, for instance, be pointless to define refugees from the recent Asian Tsunami, or from the devastation of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina, solely via the 1951 United Nations definition, although political factors certainly influence the make-up, duration, and long-term fate of the A camp in Guinea for refugees from Sierra Leone. refugees. In such cases, the term environmental refugee seems the Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia ( best one. Other situations, such as the dust bowl, are more ambiguous, since the economic circumstances of the Great Depression were crucial, while the Haitian boat people are driven partly by environmental circumstances, but perhaps even more by political persecution. Yet if one were to analyze such terms as economic refugee or political refugee in these cases, one would find that they, too, break down. Even in the numerous cases when the distinction between environmental and other types of refugees is blurry, it is important to have such a classification to know how international law treats people uprooted from their homes through no fault of their own. As Myers points out, Environmental refugees are still to be officially recognized as a problem at all.24 According to another source, in the eyes of foreign nations, refugees had no right to refuge unless and until they fit stringent, preordained requirements for origin, cause and escape.25 Yet obviously such refugees exist and suffer. Although prevention is the best policy, often this does not happen. Instead we need procedures to ensure that migrationprovided it is conHurricane Katrina trolled, planned and orderlycan again be005/katrina.html come the positive force it has frequently National Climatic Data Center (Federal Building, 151 Patton Avenue, Asheville NC 28801-5001) been in the past.26 The goal here is to ensure that such refugees are able to contribute
24 25

Myers, N. 1997. Environmental refugees. Population and Environment 19(2): 167-182, p. 175. Wijnberg, H. 2004. The Toledo Initiative on Environmental Refugees and Ecological Restoration. Living Space for Environmental Refugees. Accessed March, 2006. 26 Myers, N. 1997. Environmental refugees. Population and Environment 19(2): 167-182, p. 176. CSA Discovery Guides Released June 2006

Goffman: Environmental Refugees

to the societies into which theyre displaced, rather than being marginalized in camps or ghettos, becoming an economic drag, a source of tension and conflict. Classifying Environmental Refugees From the various schemes categorizing environmental refugees, it is possible to derive a few clear types derived from human history and organization, at least speaking theoretically. Natural disasters are the most obvious, and have the longest history. Since the start of Homo sapiens, forest fires, hurricanes, floods, volcanic eruptions, and earthquakes have caused human dislocation, both temporary and permanent. While these would seem to be out of human control, decisions to live in disaster-prone areas intensify the danger. For instance, for economic and aesthetic reasons, a large proportion of people choose to live in coastal areas, and therefore make themselves more vulnerable to floods and hurricanes. In a hunter-gatherer society, in which nomadism is often a way of life, it might be difficult to say when migration is part of a normal pattern and when it achieves environmental refugee status. Drought has always been with human beings, with the response generally being to move on to the next watering hole, fresh spring, lake, or other water source. Of course in contemporary times drought takes on a whole new context, and must be looked at in regional, national, and international contexts. Lester Brown, for instance, worries that on a global level we are drawing down our overall water supply.27

Weeds taking over the pavement in the ghosttown of Pripyat, near the Chernobyl nuclear power station, May 14, 1988 m Reuters AlertNet (30 South Colonnade, London E14 4EP, United Kingdom)

Ever since humans adopted agriculture, and largely abandoned a nomadic way of life, over the last 10,000 years or so, we have made ourselves vulnerable to another kind of environmental dislocation, that caused by land degradation, of which the dust bowl is but one example. Drought, erosion, and soil depletion threaten the stability of agricultural societies. Some environmentalists believe that modern agricultural methods, depending largely on a very few crop types, have permanently altered ecosystems and left us vulnerable to massive crop failure, although continual technological changes might very well offset this.


Brown, L. 2004. Outgrowing the Earth. New York: W.W. Norton, p. 99 ff. CSA Discovery Guides

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Goffman: Environmental Refugees

The industrial age brought forth pollution, yet another kind of environmental stress, at times leading to refugees. Pollution, depending upon how one defines the word, had always existed, both from natural sources and from human garbage, yet not of the kind or concentration generated by industry. Evolving technology has led to new chemical wastes, with varied and often unpredictable effects. Brown describes New York states Love Canal, site of 21,000 tons of toxic waste that led to birth defects and other illnesses, as the site of the first toxic-waste refugees.28 Although this may be exaggerated, such toxic events as the Chernobyl nuclear disaster periodically mar our world. Most pollution, however, leads to a kind of slow degradation, a decrease in health, rather than a mass exodus. Finally, global climate change caused by humans is an extremely recent phenomena that seems to have created only a few refugees, but almost certainly will increase future numbers, perhaps exponentially. The most obvious way is through raising sea levels, as may already be happening in the Pacific. And global climate change has the potential to interact with other environmental problems. Recent scientific papers, for instance, suggest that hurricanes may become (or may already be) larger and fiercer than those in the past. Changes in climate also make agricultural output unpredictable; techniques that grow bounteous crops in one climate may not work as well in another, making planning for best practices in a given area increasingly difficult. In sum, then, while natural disasters have been always with us, human innovation leads to increases in the quality of life, but also to unexpected consequences and periodic waves of refugees. Haiti: Vicious Cycle upon Vicious Cycle At one time a wealthy colony, the crown jewel of both the Spanish and French empires in the Caribbean, Haiti has long since fallen onto miserable times. Beginning in 1972, boats crammed with extremely poor people, many starving, thirsty, and sick, began arriving in Florida, while the bodies of Haitians drowned trying to escape their island have washed up intermittently. U.S. policy has alternated between granting these boat people refugee status and sending them back. The boat people are only the most well-known, although generally the poorest, More than 400 refugees packed into a boat of Haitis several waves of immigrants, to off the Florida coast the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and the
74.stm BBC News Online


Brown, L. 2003. Plan B: Rescuing a Planet under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble. New York: W.W. Norton, p. 100. CSA Discovery Guides Released June 2006

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United States, which began some 200 years ago.29 Jared Diamond believes that environmental limitations explain part of Haitis poverty; that its development did not take into account Haitis geographic and natural resource base. He contrasts Haiti with the adjacent Dominican Republic, a higher percentage of Haitis area is mountainous, the area of flat land good for intensive agriculture is much smaller, there is more limestone terrain, and the soils are thinner and less fertile and have a lower capacity for recovery.30 Developing much more rapidly than the Dominican Republic, Haiti used up its environmental capital far more quickly. Haitis French overlords also constructed an intensive plantation system based on importing large numbers of slaves, leading to overpopulation and a deliberately low education level. Deforestation is a primary factor behind Haitis poverty, and therefore a driver of its refugees. Shrinking forests cripple the island nations two primary means of subsistence, agriculture and energy. With numerous mountains and decreasing forest cover, rain degrades what good farmland is available, and the fuelwood and charcoal upon which Haitians depend for energy are in short supply. Desperate peasants flee to the increasingly crowded and impoverished cities, from which more refugees flee the island itself. Of course this environmental explanation is only part of the picture. Haitis history of cruel and corrupt governance is another driver of the islands refugees, beginning with extreme maltreatment of slaves, while the notorious regimes of Papa Doc and Baby Doc Duvalier, from 1957 through 1986, created an ongoing culture of violence. Such brutal dictatorships provide little incentive to care for the environment, which further degrades, enhancing the cycles that result in refugees. Another perspective considers economics as a driving force behind Haitis refugees. A relatively affluent society can afford to concentrate on improving its environment, on long-term thinking. Were Haiti to be given a vast injection of time and money, they could easily plant forests, not only improving the environment but eventually creating a trade in wood products. Yet, as Anthony V. Catanese explains, Haitians lack the luxury of being able to do so: Rural people correctly concentrate on immediate cash crops versus long-term prospects of ag- Young tree limbs for sale, cause number 1 of ricultural productivity. They find it diffi- Haiti's deforestation and soil erosion problem cult, if not impossible, to consider tree farming as a cash crop. Because their Envirotech 99 (Dr. Florentin Maurrasse, Dept. of Geology, Florida Internl. University, Miami, FL 33199)

29 30

Catanese, A. 1999. Haitians: Migration and Diaspora. Boulder and Oxford: Westview Press, p. 48. Diamond, J. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Viking, p. 339. CSA Discovery Guides Released June 2006


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needs are immediate, their time horizon is brief.31 A vicious cycle of poverty, environmental degradation, and political violence and corruption thus exists, with each element feeding on the others. Indeed, Haiti was one of the first nations for which the term environmental refugees was applied.32 So how should Haitis refugees be classified? Catanese believes that the term environmental refugee is apt. He argues that, although environmental conditions are integral to the definition of environmental refugees, a political aspect is always present in deciding whether a society can alter environmentally destructive practices. Therefore, Haitian migrants may be considered environmental refugees because the root causes of their migrations are land degradation and the governments unwillingness to act in the interest of the general population.33 The Fate of Small Islands: Perchance to Drown? Flooding is only one of several ways in which climate change may spur environmental refugees; drought, forest fires, disease, and massive hurricanes are other possible side effects of global warming. For small island chains such as Tuvali, Vanuatu, and the Maldives, however, flooding is the current danger; these island nations may be early victims of rising sea levels. In 2005 a small Vanuatu community was moved inland to escape flooding. Tuvalu has made plans to abandon their nine island nation,34 although haven for the entire population of 11,000 has yet to be secured. New Zealand has already become a refuge for many Tuvaluans, and both New Zealand and Australia are debating how to handle future refugees.
Flood strikes Tuvalus Capital, Funafuti Flood strikes Tuvalu's capital, Funafuti Tuvalu Online (Brian Cannon,19567 Fraser Highway, Suite 262, Surrey, BC Canada V3S 9A4)

Sea level change has been widely documented. As long ago as 1984, the U.S. Environmental Pro-


Catanese, A. 1999. Haitians: Migration and Diaspora. Boulder and Oxford: Westview Press, p. 29. Ibid., p. 49. 33 Ibid., p. 51. 34 Brown, L. 2001. Rising Sea Level Forcing Evacuation of Island Country. Earth Policy Institute. Accessed May 19, 2006. CSA Discovery Guides Released June 2006


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tection Agency described a thirty centimeter (one foot) rise in sea level that has taken place along much of the U.S. coast in the last century.35 According to a 2001 report of the International Council on Climate change, Global mean sea level is projected to rise by 0.09 to 0.88 meters between 1990 and 2100.36 This spells trouble for both coastal regions and small island nations. Erosion and disruption of fresh water are likely to affect those portions of small islands that remain above sea level. The Maldives are particularly threatened. According to a United Nations report, with about three-quarters of the land area of Maldives less than a meter above mean sea level, the slightest rise in sea level will prove extremely threatening. With tide variation, environmental impacts are increased: Many islands already suffer inundation and shoreline erosion that lead to freshwater shortages and disease outbreaks.37 Still, the timing, nature, and causes of environmental impacts are difficult to pinpoint. According to one report, changes in sea level are related to a multitude of variables and no realistic trend can be detected from the data for many years to come.38 Indeed, skeptics about global climate change argue that small island nations use the possibility of rising sea levels as a tool to garner aid, and cite studies that sea level around Tuvalu has been falling precipitously for the last half-century before it began to rise. 39 And the causes of any geographic- or time-specific rise in sea level may always be contested. More important than short-term trends, however, is the longer-term consensus among the vast majority of climate scientists that global climate change is, indeed, happening. If this is so, an environmental justice issue here is whether wealthy countries that generate large amounts of greenhouse gases should take in large numbers of refugees from climate change induced events. Explains a climate change guidebook, while small islands are not responsible for the causes of climate change, they are likely to be the first to experience the worst effects of climate change, particularly through sea-level rise on low lying islands or through water shortages on porous and low lying islands.40 The Alliance
Titus, J. & Barth, M. 1985. Environmental Protection Agency. An Overview of the Causes and Effects of Sea Level Rise.$File/chapter1.pdf. Accessed May 19, 2006, p. 1. 36 A Report of Working Group I of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Summary for Policymakers. Accessed May 19, 2006, p. 16. 37 United Nations Environmental Program. 2002. Maldives: State of the Environment. Part III, Key Environmental Issues. UNEP Regional Resource Centre for Asia and the Pacific. Accessed May 26, 2006, p. 29. 38 Ministerial Conference on Environment and Development in Asia and the Pacific. 2000. Climate Change and the Pacific Islands. United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific. Accessed May 22, 2006. 39 Michaels, P. 2001. Dont Boo-Hoo for Tuvalu. Cato Institute. Accessed May 22, 2006. 40 Tompkins, E. et al. 2005. Surviving Climate Change in Small Islands A Guidebook. Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research., p. 13. Accessed May 22, 2006. CSA Discovery Guides Released June 2006


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of Small Island States claims that metropolitan countries will need to pay damages to their countries and must begin meaningful reductions of greenhouse gases without further delay.41 Of course sorting out the long-term causes of such events, who is responsible, and how they should compensate, is far easier said than done. Most developed nations have thus far foregone responsibility for island nation refugees. Wither the Refugees? Solutions? A frequently cited solution to many refugee situations is a right of return, that people be allowed to come back to a place they were forced to flee and resume life there. The danger is of a kind of mythic assumption that one can return to an old life, pick it up as it once was lived. Rather, as Ruth Haug argues, lives and cultures must be remade to reflect new circumstances. At the same time, for many refugees, their new location will become their permanent home; For forced migrants the possibility or right to stay in the area where they settle down might be as important as the right to return to ones homeland. Internationally, the right to return appears to be more recognized than the right to stay.42 Much of the discussion around New Orleans following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina revolves around whether the citys refugees should return, and under what circumstances. One estimate put the number of refugees in Katrinas immediate aftermath, over an area of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama much larger than just New Orleans, at close to one million.43 Regarding the city of New Orleans, the argument for return includes the ideal of a potent culture, largely based on African American music and traditions, epitomized in the mayors chocolate city remark. Yet given the likelihood of future hurricanes, New Orleans vulnerable position, the even more vulner-

One of UNHCR's operations was the integration of refugees, including these Mozambicans in Tanzania, 1968 United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (Case Postale 2500, CH-1211 Genve 2 Dpt, Suisse)

Ministerial Conference on Environment and Development in Asia and the Pacific. 2000. Climate Change and the Pacific Islands. United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific. Accessed May 22, 2006. 42 Haug, R. 2002. Forced migration, processes of return and livelihood construction among pastoralists in Northern Sudan. Disasters 26(1): 70-84, p. 71. 43 Grier, P. 2005. The great Katrina Migration. Christian Science Monitor September 12. Accessed May 22, 2006. CSA Discovery Guides Released June 2006



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able situation of most of the citys African American residents, and the environmental cost of altering hydrology, such a return is unlikely. And, according to Slate magazine, rebuilding New Orleans as it once was is untenable and probably invites disaster. In this, the liberal Slate agrees with the conservative Speaker of the House, Denny Hastert, who after Katrina, cited the geographical insanity of rebuilding New Orleans.44 Following the hurricane, numerous hazards, natural and human-made, permeated the city. According to one source, just after the disaster, sediment left over from Katrina's floodwaters harbors fuel components, metals, pesticides and other chemicals . . . . Meanwhile splotches of fuzzy mold consume walls, ceilings and furniture.45 New Orleans was created and expanded by altering the areas natural hydrology; starting in the late 1800s and continuing into the early 20th century, developers began clearing and draining swamps behind the crescent, even dumping landfill into Lake Pontchartrain to extend the city.46 And the city remains vulnerable to hurricanes, which in the current cycle are expected to continue for about a decade, and which global climate change may be making deadlier than ever. The New Orleans situation appears to be one in which environmental realities will eventually trump social justice issues. The default situation is one in which many of the poorest and least influential inhabitants remain far from their homes, eventually settling elsewhere. Some such loss is inevitable, and better housing is needed than the trailer parks temporarily provided. The Heritage Foundation points to the number of vacant rental units across the U.S. and suggests an old solution: With rent vouchers, the relief effort can use the hundreds of thousands of vacant units in the region. For many, the uprooting caused by Hurricane Rescuers guide a boat through Hurricane Rita, Katrina may lead refugees to new opportunities: access to Erath, Louisiana better housing than they had in the slums of New Orleans http://www.ensand the choice to remain in communities where they can their standard of living.47 Slate reaches a similar 10-11-01.asp conclusion: Unless the government works mightily to reEnvironment News Service (Washington, DC and Honolulu, verse migration, a positive side-effect of the uprooting of Hawaii) thousands of lives will be to deconcentrate one of the worst pockets of ghetto poverty in the United States. The aftermath of Katrina may end up providing a vivid illustration of the right to stay in ones new location, how, if not


Shafer, J. 2005. Dont refloat: The case against rebuilding the sunken city of New Orleans. Slate September 7. Accessed May 22, 2006. 45 Chen, M. 2005. Safety places a distant second in race to repopulate New Orleans. The New Standard October 14. Accessed May 22, 2006. 46 Shafer, J. 2005. Dont refloat: The case against rebuilding the sunken city of New Orleans. Slate September 7. Accessed May 22, 2006. 47 Utt, R. 2005. After weeks of confusion, the right course for evacuee housing assistance. Heritage Foundation September 28. Accessed May 22, 2006. CSA Discovery Guides Released June 2006


Goffman: Environmental Refugees

shunted aside into temporary camps, environmental refugees can be integrated into communities and start new lives. The other part of the equation, the right of return, seems problematic in New Orleans. We may end up with a superficially attractive city rebuilt primarily in already wealthy areas, yet one that has lost its historic jazz and soul. Or numerous refugees may return to substandard housing in the lowest, most vulnerable areas, only to get slammed again by the next hurricane. Perhaps better social and environmental planning would allow most refugees a relatively safe return to New Orleans, in better housing, on higher ground, with thought given to the jobs and other conditions necessary for a secure future. Such a plan would not duplicate prior conditions, but would allow a line of social and cultural continuation, albeit in evolving circumstances. Return and resettlement, the two means of handling environmental refugees, depend upon numerous conditionsthe wishes of the refugees, the availability of places able and willing to take them in, the condition of the refugees original homeland. Rebuilding is easier after a temporary event, such as an earthquake, than a permanent change, such as desertification, which requires long-term environmental management. The balance between continuity, restoring original conditions to both natural and human environments, and the need for change, is also tricky. Restoration may be an ideal goal; but often a new balance is needed, one that considers the interests of all parties and while preserving former elements. Of course the best policy is prevention, maintaining current ecosystems and a balance between human needs and natural resources to avoid the conditions that create environmental refugees. Restoring wetlands in states such as Louisiana and Florida is one of many methods to lessen the severity of future events, since such wetlands act as enormous sponges sucking some of the force from future hurricanes. Pollution, climate change, and land degradation are caused by humans, and the right policies will alleviate future disasters. Defining and implementing these policies is, of course, far easier said than done. Unfortunately environmental systems seem to be threatened on an international scale, with increasing migration likely in the near future. To remedy this, one source calls for global migration policies that transcend national boundaries.48 Whether such a solution is practical, more thought needs to be given to institutionalizing the concept of environmental refugees in international law to ensure at least a modicum of fair treatment. Whether driven from their homes at gunpoint, starved out, or wracked by wind and water, people forced to flee through no fault of their own deserve a chance at decent futures.


Conisbee, M. & Simms, A. 2003. Environmental refugees: The case for recognition. New Economics Foundation., p. 37. Accessed May 22, 2006. CSA Discovery Guides Released June 2006