Refugees and Climate Change

I recently had the opportunity to craft a public statement for Rhode Island Interfaith Power and Light about the connection between  climate change and the humanitarian crisis at our southern border. After receiving negative feedback from one of our members, Ray, I further clarified my thoughts on the subject. It ended up connecting the dots between climate change, immigration, and mass incarceration in a way that seems worth sharing, so I'm posting the whole chain here:


RIIPL Public Statement, 6/26/18:

Rhode Island Interfaith Power and Light joins many other local, national, and international faith organizations in condemning the incarceration of children and families on our southern border. The new policy of indefinite detention of families, as well as the practice of separation of children from their parents, is both deeply immoral and a terrifying harbinger of our social response to a future of climate disruption.

All of our faith traditions recognize the inherent worth and dignity of all human beings, as we are all children of the same creator. In our current atmosphere of dehumanizing rhetoric, we feel this must be said unequivocally: Immigrants are human beings. Refugees are human beings. People of color are human beings. We vehemently reject president Trump’s characterization of immigrants as animals or vermin. Human rights are bestowed upon all people by God, not based on the legalism of citizenship status or the whims of bigotry.

As an organization with a focus on the climate crisis and ecological destruction, we are particularly troubled by these inhumane practices of incarceration of migrants. We recognize that unprecedented water crises are already triggering mass migrations around the world, including in Syria and Africa. We further recognize that the significant climate disruption to which we have already committed through our failure to address the climate crisis guarantees a future of unprecedented displacement of populations due to drought, sea level rise, crop failure, catastrophic storms, wildfires, and other impacts. Mass migration will be a defining feature of the coming century, and we are right now practicing how we will respond to the millions more who will come knocking in an hour of desperate need.

The example currently being set at our borders does not bode well for our potential to respond to the hardships of global mass migration in a way that affirms our shared values of decency and human rights. If the current dehumanizing treatment of those seeking refuge at our border is not ended and firmly repudiated, we risk establishing a precedent that leads to an unimaginably ugly future. It is vital that we as a society use every opportunity of migrants on our border to normalize compassion, generosity, and universal human rights.

The climate chaos which we have already caused will guarantee hardship in our future, but hardship does not have to guarantee inhumanity. We can respond to hardship by turning toward one another with love and cooperation, not against one another with fear and cruelty. We can respond to the stranger and the needy with generosity and compassion, as our faith traditions demand of us.

Here in the Ocean State, many of our own families will inevitably be forced to migrate due to rising seas. We must now treat others as we hope to be treated in our own hour of need. We must treat these children as we hope our own children will be treated as they face the consequences of climate change which we have imposed upon them.

May we all find the love and courage necessary to manifest our spiritual values, now and evermore.

The response from Ray on the mailing list:
So, just to understand; by your groups' logic, if a parent or parents commit robbery or murder, and they go to jail as,  "illegals" or law breakers. And in the process they are separated from their children, the non law breaking citizens should be sent on a guilt trip as lacking compassion? Are we not all jointly culpable in America, along with all civilized societies, most everyday, of allowing this type of parent-child separation? Please advise as to what the difference is, because using cogent logic, I fail to see it.
Our ED: Hi Raymond, Our statement addresses the current administration's treatment of refugees seeking asylum. Requesting asylum is a legal process.
Ray's response: So I am glad to see that the IPL supports only those who act legally and not illegally, You know, like the multitudes who seem to have no regard for our laws and try to cross our borders (boundaries) illegally, each day. By your silence on my supporting point, I also concur that you agree with me, that parents (citizens or not) who break our laws and go to jail and are thus separated sadly, but needfully, everyday should not expect or deserve our support. It is simply the penalty all those in civilized countries, operating under the rule of law, must pay. Our social services steps in, as you know, wherever needed for the separated children. I for one, have never heard a national outcry against our social workers, as uncaring and lacking compassion for such children. You are not against social workers, too, are you?  If not, perhaps an article supporting them, alon with the brave men and women of ICE, would help clarify your position for all. Assuming that is what you truly and honestly believe.
My response to Ray (6/30/18):
     Kristen Ivy forwarded me your responses to the RIIPL statement on the detention of refugee families at the border. As the RIIPL board secretary and the primary author of that statement, I wanted to respond to some of your concerns. 
     First, as a faith organization focused on the climate crisis, our primary intention in writing the statement was to bring the importance of climate change into the national discourse about this issue. That is why four out of the six paragraphs in the statement were focused on climate change. As I expressed in the statement, and as many reports and analyses about climate change make clear, mass migration will be one the most significant social impacts of climate change. The estimates for climate-induced migration range from hundreds of millions to billions of people depending on the study and the degree of mitigation, but it is clear that we will experience orders of magnitude more mass migration than we do today.
     I don’t think there will be a clear line when folks will say “now the impacts of extreme climate change are clearly here,” and such a line certainly wouldn't trigger a dramatic shift in social behavior. In fact, recent reports indicate that climate change is one of many complex factors currently driving migration from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. ( Climate impacts now and in the future will continue to intermingle with and exacerbate other social factors that displace people, including economic imperialism, resource colonialism, and undemocratic leaders supported by the US military. That vague boundary of the climate crisis means that how we practice responding to our current “minor” crises will determine our default response to the unimaginably large crises that await us. Our hope with our public statement was to invite reflection on whether our current approach to migration will be reasonable, ethical, or even feasible at a scale of hundreds of millions of people. And if that reflection leads people to realize that there is no ethical or feasible solution at such a scale, that is yet another reason to do all we can to minimize climate change immediately, which is a core mission of RIIPL.
     As to your concern about whether our compassion for migrant families separated by detention extends to all families separated by all types of incarceration, I can’t speak for the whole organization, as the connection between mass incarceration and climate change is a little less clear than the connection between mass migration and climate change. While I am not clear on how a statement about social workers would connect to our mission, I do certainly support them. But every social worker that I know, including several in my own family, readily acknowledge the limits of what they can accomplish when a family has already been broken apart. This is why the goal of foster care is always reintegration of a family. This is also why incarceration always has a socially destructive impact. None of us has the intention of sending everyone “on a guilt trip” about this, but I do think it needs to be recognized as a social problem that needs to be addressed with major systemic change. All of us taking responsibility for a social problem is not the same as all of us being sent on a guilt trip for that problem.
     RIIPL does not take a position on this, but I personally am deeply opposed to our system of mass incarceration. My church denomination, Unitarian Universalists, passed a national resolution a few years ago opposing mass incarceration and committing to work toward the abolition of that system. Whereas you say that anyone who breaks a law “needfully” goes to jail, that is not a universal or necessary consequence to breaking a rule. In fact, there are very few countries besides the US, notably North Korea and Iran, where incarceration is the primary mechanism of justice. Every other advanced country in the world has justice systems that do not rely upon jailing such an inordinate percentage of their population as we do. Most of those countries also have far lower rates of homicide and other violent crime.
     I am also concerned about your statement that people who break laws “should not expect or deserve our support.” I’m not exactly sure what you mean by support, but I am adamant that people who break laws still deserve humanity, compassion, dignity, human rights, and understanding for the complex structural factors that may have led them to break a law. This is deeply embedded in many religious traditions, particularly in the Christian tradition from which I come. It is also simply pragmatic, as people who break the law are still part of the web of humanity and will likely return to being free members of society. We cannot sow dehumanization onto those people without reaping its fruits. That is the fundamental point our statement was trying to make, and I think it applies to migrants or anyone else who has broken a law.
     And finally, RIIPL will not be making any public statement in support of ICE. The United States is not safer now than before ICE was created in 2002. It was not inevitable or necessary for us to treat migrants at our border as a law enforcement problem. I believe it is primarily a humanitarian problem, so rather than a system such as ICE that trains soldiers and police to treat people as threatening criminals, I would rather see a system that trains social workers and aid workers to see people as in need of help.
     I think all these things are possible, though I know the process will be messy and involve shared sacrifice. But when I look at the climate chaos that awaits us in the very near future, it is clear that messiness and shared sacrifice are inevitable. The avoidance of that messiness, or the expectation that we are entitled to avoid our share of the sacrifice for this global crisis, will lead to unimaginably inhumane outcomes as we suffer the impacts of climate change. The message here, and I believe that I am speaking here both as an individual and for an organization that is focused on climate change, is that the sooner we realize that we are all in this little boat of planet Earth together, the better.

Tim DeChristopher
   Ray then unsubscribed from the mailing list. So much for dialogue across ideologies. 

Showing 3 reactions

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  • P Dillon
    commented 2020-12-19 11:42:00 -0500
    There was a great show on PBS recently about the topic of climate migration. This is really a salient topic today. Good luck Tim .. the little finger that turned into fist is growing an arm !
  • Jana Pace
    commented 2018-08-28 21:49:21 -0400
  • Sande Chis
    commented 2018-08-28 20:31:19 -0400
    Dear Tim, thank you for all you do.