Feature

The next wave: climate refugees

The next wave

Heavy rain and flash flooding in Pakistan in July 2010 left millions homeless and landless.

Credit: Getty images

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Australian Greens Deputy Leader Senator Christine Milne thinks so. "Australia is historically one of the biggest contributors to the climate crisis. Whether we are legally obliged to or not, we certainly have a moral obligation to help those who climate change will hurt or displace."

Corlett agrees. "Australia has obligations to people fleeing climate change related displacement because it both has the means to do so - it's relatively wealthy - and because it shares responsibility for the processes that have led to climate change."

Fine sentiments, but no less than you'd expect from such left-leaning, compassionate souls of the community. What do the hard-headed politicians in the major parties say?

"It's an issue of social injustice that those people who will literally lose their homes and their livelihoods and their countries are among the most negligible emitters of greenhouse gases." That was Anthony Albanese, Shadow Minister for Environment, Heritage and Water in 2006, talking about our Pacific neighbours. Here he is again: "Australia is the highest per capita emitter in the world and we have a moral obligation to give assistance to those in need."

Sounds like everyone's reading from the same media release. The Labor party even has a policy about Pacific climate change.

A 2006 discussion paper, Our Drowning Neighbours, proposes "an international coalition to accept climate change refugees".

Yet when the Greens tried to introduce a climate change refugee visa in 2007, Labor opposed it. Why?
Perhaps because the idea of a moral obligation to global warming's evictees appeals to our better natures, and altruism doesn't win votes. Stoking self-interest does. And herein lies the million-person question: will Australia's response to "climate refugees" be based on lofty humanitarian ideals or political expediency? Let's look at two scenarios.

Two extremes

Corlett imagines Australia's response to "climate refugees" on a continuum. At one end, he says, we might "develop a response that's based on principles of human rights and human dignity". This might include preventative measures, such as lowering greenhouse gas emissions. It might also include international and regional agreements to support the displaced and resettle those forced to leave their homelands.

At the other end, we might "develop a sort of populist, exclusive, nationalist response that emphasises our own rights over the rights of others". This might include regional zones of exclusion, where "the most vulnerable live in squalor". It might also include "a fortress of some sort" with the navy patrolling the nation's borders.

In his book, Corlett poses a scenario that tends towards the pessimistic. It's 2020, and a fictional asylum seeker, Mustafa, has fled his homeland due to a climate change-induced disaster. The Australian government refuses Mustafa entry, saying it's time to "protect our own". Mustafa is taken to a "Reservation" in a poor country where he is "warehoused" in squalid conditions.

"It may seem alarmist, but I don't think it's altogether out of the question," says Corlett. "There's a danger we'll end up going down that end of the continuum as a 'knee-jerk'. It's possible to look at Australia's response to asylum seekers throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, to Europe's attempt at regional processing, and at some of the academic literature and go 'this doesn't look great'."

Corlett adds that if the estimated number of climate change displacees is even remotely accurate, we won't be able to get away with folding our arms and saying "we're not going to let you in".

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