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November 10, 2016

Responding To: The Global Challenge of Climate-Induced Migration

Climate Contributions and Responsibilities

Randall Amster

As human-induced climate change continues to remake the world around us, its effects are coming into greater clarity on myriad levels. Ice sheets are melting, ocean levels are rising, flood and drought conditions are worsening, and every succeeding year is hotter than the last. While these effects are due to collective human activities, their impacts are not evenly distributed and, despite often appearing as beyond the purview of individuals, they are deeply intertwined with our personal choices and behaviors.

The case of Kiribati illuminates all of these issues and merits our concerted engagement. As the first nation to receive each new day across the International Date Line, Kiribati is also among the first to face the prospect of having its landmass subsumed by rising waters and thus potentially needing to relocate its people en masse in order to survive. This amounts to deterritorialization on a national scale, serving to make concrete the seemingly remote implications of a changing climate. It also affirms a basic tenet of environmental justice that those who contribute the least to a problem often suffer its worst impacts.

Former Kiribati President Anote Tong has raised all of these points and more, yet despite the gravity of the situation he does so without recrimination or rancor. His message is poignant and powerful, if we are willing to listen: what is happening to Kiribati is deeply troubling in its own right, and further serves as a harbinger of things to come on a global scale in the decades ahead. Kiribati will not be the only case of climate displacement at this level, but by being among the first it provides a critical opportunity for the global community to engage with the human rights ramifications. Just as environmental conditions can contribute to the roots of conflict, so too can they become potent drivers of peacebuilding efforts.

In this light, President Tong reminds us all that climate change is about more than the accumulation of greenhouse gases or the quest for green energy sources. It is also about our moral responsibility to our communities, to the human family as a whole, to future generations, and to the continued existence of humankind on this planet. No matter what we do at this point, we (and those who come after us) will be living with the already-accrued impacts of climate change as it inexorably reformulates the baseline operations of the earth’s biotic systems. Some will be directly impacted and others more so indirectly, at least initially, but at the end of the day our mutual survival will require pervasive and proactive efforts.

Still, climate change often remains an abstraction to many, with its processes seemingly beyond our personal control. While it may be the case that no single individual’s choices can halt climate change, it is also true that we have no chance of doing so if individuals don’t take action. A recent study has even quantified how much an individual contributes to arctic ice melt (which yields rising sea levels) annually: for an average American, it is approximately 50 square meters. Rather than lamenting this situation, we might see it as an opportunity to reinvigorate our sense of responsibility both for and to those who are being (and will be) impacted by our choices. As President Tong cogently implored, “if we can make a sacrifice, surely the rest of you can do so.” What will be gained is nothing less than a viable future.

Randall Amster, J.D., Ph.D., is director of the Program on Justice and Peace at Georgetown University. He is the editor-in-chief of the Contemporary Justice Review, and is the author of books including Peace Ecology (Routledge, 2015).

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