Activists and concerned citizens who take upon their shoulders the real issues facing the "developed" world — economic inequality, racism, sexism, bigotry — often come to view the climate movement as a gathering of well-intentioned but poorly informed environmentalists more concerned with the well-being of polar bears and coral reefs than with suffering people. As a climate activist and as a student of the movement who just got back from doing research at COP 21 — the latest meeting of the United Nations body tasked with the global governance of climate change — it is my goal, in the wake of one of the climate movement's greatest successes yet (despite its many flaws) to emphasize the value of this needed feedback.
I'm not scared of climate change for my own sake. I'm American, white, male and well-off. There just isn't a good way for climate change to really affect me. A little warming here in Minnesota may prove to be a good thing after all. I don't get nightmares from whitewashed reefs or from mass extinctions. Seeing a stranded, starved polar bear is sad, but not news. What scares me — what I see coming, hidden up the road, black ice on a highway — is war, terror and an increasingly polarized epidemic of racism and Islamophobia.
It's common knowledge that droughts, heat waves, storm-related disasters, and financial crises tend to instigate and amplify tensions. These are often the catalysts of radicalization. In a speech last month in Virginia, Secretary of State John Kerry claimed that "it's not a coincidence that, immediately before the civil war in Syria, the country experienced its worst drought on record. As many as 1.5 million people migrated from Syria's farms to its cities, intensifying the political unrest that was just beginning to roil and boil in the region." These are the effects of climate change that, in an attempt to focus policymakers' attention on stopping the bleeding of emissions, are too much ignored. We must remember that there is urgency behind every statistic, behind vague terms like "loss and damage," and that it exists in ongoing real-life tensions and in the histories and families whose human rights will be stripped away by rising seas, storms and drought.
Though I commend the U.N. for arriving Saturday at the most ambitious international agreement to date, I cannot, upon reflection of my experience at the conference, help but continue to fear what is coming. Paris seemed too much a snapshot of our not-so-distant future. Anxious and reeling from the Nov. 13 terror attacks, the French government severely limited the role that social movements could play, canceling their presence at the conference itself, prohibiting large-scale gatherings entirely, arresting hundreds of peaceful protesters in the city and placing about 25 organizing activists (who were planning a march in the name of the future refugee crisis) on house arrest without due warrant.
As a researcher, I was startled by an almost systematic lack of willingness to verbalize the humanity of climate change — that it is already and is only going to continue ruining millions of lives. There are already millions of climate migrants fleeing erosion, sea-level rise and storms in Bangladesh and small island states like the Maldives, Kiribati and Tuvalu. Prof. Francois Gemenne, a leading researcher on climate-induced migration and displacement at the Paris Institute of Political Studies, trying to account for this lack of dialogue, referred to his area of study as too "ticklish" to be spoken about. Walter Kaelin, the representative of the Nansen Initiative at COP 21, used "sensitive" to the same avail.
In fact, climate-related displacement is so underdiscussed that even professors in the field are still arguing over terminology. Some scholars argue that the term "climate migrant" is preferable to "climate refugee," hoping to highlight migration as a useful adaptation tool, a way for humans to effectively evade the negative externalities of a planet in transition. Others, like Gemenne, prefer "refugee" because it makes plainly visible the fact that climate change is just another form of persecution: The rich are amplifying a phenomenon they well know will most negatively affect the poorest communities on Earth. It is the women, children and elderly of the world's most vulnerable places who are going to make up the highest percentage of climate change's casualties. Their suffering is, and will always be, at the behest of those who consciously profited from this violence.
Giovanni Bettini, an Italian scholar in the field, put it poetically, saying that "those bodies drowning in the sea and those bodies shot over fences carry on their skin the science of climate change." It'll be some day when the hardened and burned skin of the climate victims clashes with the "sensitive," "ticklish" skin of those who'd yet been unwilling to hear their cries.
The severity of climate change, according to Gemenne, rests in the fact that it's "the meta-issue." It's that phenomena that molds and shapes the backgrounds of all other issues. The droughts that instigated conflict in Syria and the Congo can no longer be decoupled from the agreement passed in Paris. This is not to say that climate change is the sole cause of these conflicts, but that many, if not all, conflicts are now at least partly influenced by the effects of climate change. Whether or not the Paris agreement is successful in the long run, climate change is going to amplify the already growing threat of terrorist radicalization both in affected regions and in developed countries, where racism and inequality are, perhaps, most obvious and notorious, and it is going to catalyze an exodus from both politically and environmentally unstable regions to safer alternatives.
Our involvement in the battles over racism, police brutality, Islamophobia and inequality nearest our secluded, protected homes in Minnesota will set the precedent for how we're going to handle the huddled masses of climate-related refugees soon to be crowding at our gates. It's on us to take seriously these more controversial, difficult issues close to home so that, when the day comes when we'll have to open our doors to the wounded and weary, we'll be more prepared to welcome them with open arms and an honest smile.
The Paris agreement creates no binding international mechanisms to protect the human rights of the most affected, nor anything assisting those who are to move through that process, leaving more on us, as local communities, than ever before. With injustice staining the streets of the North Side of Minneapolis and Syrian refugees on their way, there's never been a better time to act.
Harrison Beck, a senior at Macalester College in St. Paul, is studying political science and environmental studies.