How the environmental crisis is already affecting us and who really bears the consequences

We are all concerned about our future and that of our planet. The many issues related to climate change are known to all of us, but we see them primarily as a problem of the future. We do not necessarily pay primary attention to the acute effects and profound emergencies that the climate crisis is already triggering.

The climate crisis is a very complex problem that is unlikely to be solved quickly. It is an issue that will affect us all. However, the current situation is highly unbalanced and unjust: Those who cause climate change and those who suffer the consequences are two different groups of people.

The Sahel: a major victim of climate change

The acute consequences of climate change are already being felt throughout Africa, especially in the Sahel.[1]In this region, more than 3.5 million people have already been forced to flee their homes due to flooding and desertification, and 24 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance. Due to temperature increases and changes in precipitation, deserts are forming and rivers are overflowing, forcing the local population to flee. These environmental changes are particularly drastic because the economy of these countries relies heavily natural resources. Climate change threatens agriculture, livestock, mining, but also tourism. These are all livelihoods for the resident population whose economic, social and existential security is now constantly threatened by the consequences of climate change. In addition, their status as developing countries complicates the situation. Access to funding, aid and research projects is severely limited and there is a risk of institutional failure due to additional local armed conflicts. The paradox is that Africa is currently experiencing the greatest effects of climate change yet has one of the lowest greenhouse gas emissions.

The Complexity of the concept of ‘Climate Refugees’

Not only in the Sahel, but also in South Asia and Latin America, people are suffering from the effects of climate change. For the population, migration is often the last and only option. These people are mistakenly referred to as ‘climate refugees’. This term is critical because there is no international agreement on the exact definition of it. There is widespread disagreement on who should be considered a climate refugee and how to resolve the crisis. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) favors the wording “persons displaced in the context of disasters and climate change.” The disagreement over the formal definition of ‘climate refugee’ is very problematic, as those who are forced to leave their home due to natural disasters are not officially considered refugees and thus are not protected under international law. International law does not protect them since they are not forced to flee because of their nationality, religion, or political beliefs. As climate change-affected states are often also developing countries who suffer from violent armed conflicts, several issues overlap and make this definition even more difficult. 

What is certain is that the number of climate refugees has risen sharply in recent years and already exceeds that of armed conflict refugees. At this time over 65 million people are affected, creating one of the greatest humanitarian challenges of this century. This issue requires global political coordination and the affected states cannot and should not bear the consequences alone. 

In fear of the impact of migration on Europe and North America, many financial resources are currently being invested in the migration crisis. This short-term solution may placate the problem, but it won’t solve it. In the long term, there is also a need to invest in concrete solutions to climate change and to comply with global agreements on the environment and greenhouse gas emissions. The UNHCR has an important role to play in being responsible for protecting climate refugees, promoting policy coherence in areas of climate change, research, and activities in the field.

An artistic appeal against climate change

In addition to the UNHCR’s commitment, the Coalition for Art and Sustainable Development (COAL) offers another interesting approach. Their goal is to make the acute problem of the climate crisis visible through art. They call on artists to address the issue of climate change and draw attention to it. Art has the unique potential of opening a personal perspective and addressing our feelings through a visual language. It can lead us to further our understanding of the abstract construct of climate change and strengthen our empathy for the fate of many of those affected. Annually, COAL awards a prize to contemporary artists working on environmental issues. In 2019, the prize was awarded to Lena Dobrowolska and Teo Ormond-Skeaping for their work “You never know, one day you too may become a refugee.” It addresses migration policies in Uganda. The country, which has one of the highest poverty rates in the world but has taken in over 1.3 million refugees is a model for climate refugee policy. In their artistic practice, the artists present a fictional reality of a white middle-class family forced to flee to Africa or South America. In their work, art makes itself apparent as a new tool for educating and raising awareness. They show how art can fight the environmental crisis in a sensitive and peaceful way.

[1] This affects parts of Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon, Sudan and Eritrea.

Social justice: A world scale out of balance

Exactly 12 years ago today, the UN convened the first World Day of Social Justice. Since then, the World Day of Social Justice has been held annually on February 20th, which is why I would like to take advantage of today and draw attention to the complex topic of social justice.

Where do we stand today? I urge all of us who live in a world of seemingly unlimited opportunities and resources to listen up for a moment and hear the grief of those suffering in our world. While we lead a seemingly happy life in our bubble of privilege, the majority of the world is struggling and suffering. We are still far away from the idea of social justice: our economic and social order is severely imbalanced. But who is to blame? It is time to take up the Social Question again.

Especially in times of a global pandemic, it is more necessary than ever to question the world economic and social order and to sensitize ourselves to the social justice we are striving for. COVID-19 represents another major challenge in this regard: the pandemic intensifies the social distribution struggle and throws the scales even more out of balance. Already strained and now collapsing health care systems, work stoppages, economic losses: all this leads to economic and social insecurity, but also social polarization. But the two sides of the coin must be considered here: besides its obvious obstructive characteristics, the pandemic also brings something positive. The momentum of the pandemic provides us with the opportunity to reopen the social question and renegotiate justice. A debate can be sparked about performance and needs, ethics and human dignity, and it can stimulate us to rethink our social, political and consumer behaviour.

Here, the fundamental question suggests itself: what does social justice mean? Aristotle designates justice as the most fundamental and perfect virtue. Interestingly, it is not related to the individual, but to man as a fellow citizen. Justice is something human, that arises from ethics. From Marx and Engels’ approach, social justice is achieved in a classless society. The decisive factor for this is human labor. Rawls shifts the concept into a political dimension and sets the ideal of social justice as the result of a just social order, established by the state. These extensions of the concept have one thing in common: they place man in the environment of his fellow men.

In the dichotomy between “us” and “others”

Perhaps this is the crucial point in the discussion and the answer to the problem of social injustice. Now, why is the question of identity crucial here? With globalization, digitalization and emerging affluence, we have not only become much more connected, but our needs have also changed. Self-actualization is now something we all strive for every day. This is directly based on our self-definition and self-identification: who am I and what makes me different from others? We live in an age of identity, which not only determines our own lives, but has also become a guiding and contentious concept in politics. The ideologies of extremist groups are often based on radical identity politics. Especially in highly emotionally charged debates such as the refugee crisis, this identity formation draws boundaries between “us” and “others”. This has a direct impact on how we formulate our needs and act politically: for the common good or for our own benefit?

To counteract this, we need to reform social coexistence based on the ethical foundation of a sense of community. Mutuality and a sense of responsibility are here the signposts to a society of solidarity that makes social justice possible. We as individuals need to acquire a collective identity in order to shift the focus from our self-interest to that of the community. Rethinking and conceiving our idea of community is the starting point of an approach to social justice and a shift of the global scales.

Black lives mattered, matter, and will always matter

It seems like a long time ago when people gathered on the streets, Instagram feeds were covered in black squares and the issue of racial inequality was a frequent topic of conversation. Nowadays, world affairs are so busy and fast-paced that they give the impression, they can only be devoted to a specific topic for a short amount of time. It is therefore all the more crucial in such a loud environment, that the moving and powerful outcry of the Black Lives Matter movement (BLM) continues to be heard and paid attention to.

If we consider the emergence of the BLM movement as the result of an acute social problem, this is not entirely correct. It is a mistake to believe that this is a new struggle. Especially when we look into our past, we become aware of how long there has been worldwide injustice in our society and that it is far from over. If we think of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution, Pan-Africanism, and the civil rights movement, we see countless figures who fought and began to pave the way for us to continue. While the US has been the main stage for these movements, a global perspective and investigation are required. Since injustice and racism are global issues, it is imperative to come to terms with our past, including the legacy of imperialism and colonialism. 

From addressing the problem to solving it

With that, I would like to raise the question: What can I, as a white person, do now? Protests and actions on social media platforms have given us the basis to address and raise awareness for this issue. What is missing are solutions to the problem of injustice and racism that bring long-term social change. To be anti-racist and support the equality of people of color not only requires empathy, but also the understanding that being white still comes with privileges many people are unaware of. It is this insight that we should keep in mind as we go about our daily actions.  

This privilege must no longer be denied, and it is imperative to accept that our self-image in society is distorted. However, this privilege can and must be used to weaken existing structural injustices. This means making people more aware of how certain actions contribute to an unjust and unequal system and not being afraid to speak up when something is wrong.  

Since this is a socio-political issue, the responsibility not only lies on politicians but on each one of us. Thanks to globalization and technology, the images of the protests spread at a rapid pace around the world. The difficulty, however, lies in the contrast between ideals and real life. Although the movement is rapid, the goal of equality requires time, and it may take a while to achieve real structural change. That is why constant engagement, education, and awareness of the issue of justice for people of color and the abolition of racism are necessary.

As moving and important as the outcry of the BLM movement is, it is all the more important not to let it fall silent.