Disaster-induced displacement and the inequalities of the climate crisis

“The climate crisis both reinforces and perpetuates global inequalities and the tumultuous consequences are already emerging.” Holly Barrow, Political Correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service, reflects on the inextricable link between climate change and displacement, explaining that the most vulnerable, marginalised communities will be hit the hardest.

Submerged tree in Bangladesh
Submerged tree in Bangladesh
Holly Barrow

In 2017, Australia’s current Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, infamously wielded a lump of coal in Parliament while asserting: "This is coal – don't be afraid, don't be scared”. The objective of his condescending display? To snub those who had proposed the increasingly popular initiative of replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy. 

Morrison’s intent was crystal clear to those who recognised his motives: Australia is the world’s single largest exporter of coal and liquefied gas, making it one of the main profiteers from the fossil fuel industry. 

Apprehension surrounding fossil fuel use is no new phenomenon, contrary to the vindictive rhetoric often peddled by climate change denialists. Scientists have warned that burning fossil fuels will be of detriment to the planet from as early as 1883. Yet, despite these once-predictions now being widely recognised as fact, our economic system continues to prop up self-serving corporations that prioritise profit over planet. In fact, just 100 of these corporations make up 71 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. 

Two years after Morrison’s tactless outburst, Australia experienced its hottest year on record with global heating a significant factor. Just months later, uncontrollable bushfires swept through Victoria and New South Wales as New Year’s celebrations marked the start of a new decade. These ongoing fires are particularly shattering for Indigenous Australians who have had their legitimate concerns suppressed for decades by those in power. Their land has been neglected, rivers contaminated and legal status stripped as successive governments have disregarded their traditional land management methods in a bid to develop coal pits. 

It is therefore crucial – amid the present focus on Australia and the climate crisis – to reinforce that those who will be exceptionally impacted by global heating are the most marginalised and poorest communities. Tragically, those who contribute the least to global carbon emissions – namely, developing nations who have been plundered by capitalism – will suffer the most. 

The climate crisis both reinforces and perpetuates global inequalities and the tumultuous consequences are already emerging. With sea levels rising and floods, droughts and heatwaves rapidly increasing, mass migration induced by climate-related threats is on the rise as homes and entire areas become uninhabitable. This surge in climate-related displacement led to the recent landmark UN decision that found it unlawful to return climate refugees to their countries of origin where their lives would be at risk due to global heating.

With over 2,000 homes destroyed in the Australian bushfires, Morrison’s government has been accused of creating its own climate refugees. The hypocrisies of the Australian Government have not gone unnoticed. Morrison, who was immigration minister prior to becoming prime minister, introduced many of the brutal policies used to turn away and detain vulnerable people seeking asylum in Australia. The government has been reprimanded recurrently for its treatment of refugees who have undergone comparable forms of traumatic, forcible displacement. In 2018, Morrison’s government refused to sign a UN migration pact, stating that to do so would be to undermine Australia’s efforts to deter asylum seekers.

During the course of the country’s own crisis, however, the Australian Government has demonstrated a clear recognition of how invaluable it is to receive aid from other countries in times of crisis as it has accepted the assistance of both Canadian and US firefighters. In stark contrast, millions of displaced people each year are repeatedly abandoned and criminalised by Western governments. 

At the UK-Africa investment summit this week, Boris Johnson claimed: “We all breathe the same air, we live beneath the same sky, and we all suffer when carbon emissions rise and the planet warms.” His words were not only empty – as 90 per cent of the energy deals struck at the summit were for fossil fuels – but they also insult those who are disproportionately burdened by the climate crisis and who suffer vast discrepancies in treatment when they seek aid and protection. Johnson’s statement does not take into account those who have spent their lives at the very margins of society; who are shunned by the Global North at every turn.

Those who have thrived under a capitalist economic system must take responsibility for a crisis that they have significantly contributed to. This means an end to subsidising the fossil fuel industry and taking dedicated action to reverse the damage inflicted by over-consumption. It also means providing safety and stability to the many climate refugees who continue to face the brutal reality of uninhabitable homes and fragmented communities. 

We do not all suffer the same as a result of the climate crisis. Those with inherent privileges – who are able to buy their way out of danger, who will protect themselves at all costs – will not feel the aftermath of global heating in the same way that the most vulnerable will. They will not face the same rejections, the same fears or the same dispossessions. 

Holly Barrow is a political correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation of immigration lawyers providing free advice and support to asylum seekers and victims of abuse