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Climate Justice: Who will be Next Refugees?

Paul Kando

As I write, Houston and much of southern Texas are under water. More than 50 are dead, thousands languish in shelters, at least 185,000 houses are damaged or destroyed. Estimated damage: close to $200 Billion. In Beaumont 118,000 are without water. In Crosby a chemical plant is intermittently on fire – possibly ready to explode.

Flooding from Hurricane Harvey
photo credit: CNN

800 million people — 11% of world population — are affected by climate change. The recent flooding and landslides in Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Sierra Leone have killed over 2,200 people so far — at least 134 in Bangladesh, 850 in India, 150 in Nepal, and 1,000 in Sierra Leone. Millions have been displaced. Thousands of villages have no electricity. One-third of Bangladesh is underwater, 700,000 homes have been destroyed. In India, floods have affected over 32 million people. Millions lack access to safe water and sanitation. Water-borne diseases like malaria and diarrhea are spreading.

Warming seas expand, causing sea level rise. The entire population of the Carteret Islands had to flee their inundated homeland to Papua New Guinea. Will the next climate refugees come from Thibodeaux, Louisiana, Miami, New Orleans, Kivalina, Alaska? When Katrina’s floods destroyed New Orleans’ below-sea-level neighborhoods, poor blacks were most affected. Many didn’t even have access to a vehicle with which to evacuate.

Farmers around the globe are in jeopardy because of changing weather patterns. The resulting food shortages most affect the poor.

Poor people from West Virginia to Tennessee are breathing toxic blasting ash from mountain top removal by coal companies. Facilities like coal-fired power plants, refineries, chemical plants, and incinerators – often located near low-income neighborhoods and communities of color — emit toxic mercury, arsenic, lead, and other contaminants, in addition to CO2 and methane. The poor often feel the stress of both health problems and climate change-caused crises like droughts, floods, heat waves, and extreme weather.

As dire as conditions are in Texas, at least there are safe structures on higher ground and access to a mature federal disaster response system – luxuries third world countries cannot afford.

No one country can combat climate change alone. Each is affected by the actions or inactions of others. In 2016, 194 countries signed the Paris Agreement, agreeing to limit global warming and adapt to climate change. An annual investment of only $140​ Billion will finance the global changes required to adapt to a warming world — less than 0.1% of global GDP and 17%​​​ of the $824.6 Billion, Fiscal Year 2017 budget of the U.S. military — the world’s largest consumer of carbon-polluting fossil fuels.

The energy-wasting habits of the world’s affluent cause most of the world’s global warming emissions, while the most vulnerable – communities of color, the poor, the young, the elderly, the unemployed, the marginalized, are most affected by the consequences. Highly placed climate science deniers claim the right to affect the lives of innocent climate victims everywhere and to drop out of world agreements at whim. How is this fair and just?

Aren’t we complicit – given our personal energy habits, and our silent acceptance of climate crimes committed in our name?