Fighting for Climate Justice

Interview with Maxine Burkett, Climate Change Law Professor at the University of Hawai’i

The image that most people have in their minds when they think about climate change, says Professor Maxine Burkett, is that of a polar bear stranded precariously atop a small chunk of ice surrounded by a vast ocean. Less common are images of people who similarly face climate-induced displacement, says Burkett. Yet studies suggest that by the middle of this century, resettlement will become a defining feature of climate change as rising sea levels and coastal erosion threaten to wash away homes, contaminate drinking water, and destroy crops.

Photo credit: Meredith James / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Photo credit: Meredith James / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Many Pacific Island and Arctic communities are already grappling with unbelievably challenging existential questions, including if, how, when, and where to relocate. In October, a Kiribati man appealed to the New Zealand High Court for amnesty based on his status as a climate refugee. What can and should be done by the international community to assist those who are the most vulnerable to climate change, those who, ironically, have contributed little to the greenhouse gas emissions that drive global warming?

An articulate and passionate advocate for climate justice, Burkett addresses the complex social and legal challenges of climate change, particularly for Pacific Islanders. She served as the inaugural Director for the Center for Island Climate Adaptation and Policy from 2009-2012, and in 2010 she became the youngest scholar to hold the Wayne Morse Chair of Law and Politics for the Wayne Morse Center’s “Climate Ethics and Climate Equity” theme of inquiry at the University of Oregon. Burkett recently presented a talk at the Yale Law School entitled “Climate Refugees and the Challenge of Statehood: Defining the Problem, Identifying Solutions.”

SAGE Magazine’s Timothy Brown sat down with Burkett to further discuss her work, and issues of climate migration and climate justice.

Professor Maxine Burkett fights to defend those most vulnerable to climate change.
Professor Maxine Burkett fights to defend those most vulnerable to climate change. Photo from University of Hawai’i.

SAGE Magazine: The title of your talk refers to “climate refugees.” The terms “refugee” has a very specific legal definition, and some suggest that the word may actually be disempowering and carry negative connotations, compared with words like “migrant” or “settler.” Why did you decide to include that word in the title of your talk?

Maxine Burkett: Largely because it’s used so commonly. I often entitle my talks “Climate-Induced Migration.” In giving the talk to a crowd that is more conversant on the issues, I felt like it was better to just tackle that issue head-on. Our popular understanding is that there are climate refugees. It’s not accurate and I say so in my talk, but I chose that title purely as a starting point of discussion of why it’s wrong. As something that has political and sociological weight, however, I believe that it’s a valuable term. It offers a point of departure to talk about the political implications of climate migrants.

SAGE: When people talk about climate refugees, there’s a lot of questions about how many are there and how big of a problem this really is. In 2005, the UN said on its website that by 2010 there would be more than 50 million climate-induced refugees. Climate change deniers capitalized heavily on this misestimate. So, how big of a problem are we looking at?

MB: That’s the $64,000 question. You know, it’s really hard to know why people move, and so it’s really hard to capture the profile of potential climate migrants. When you talk about how many people are moving, there are different timeframes—some will say 2010, some will say 2025, some will say 2050, but they’re not describing the stock versus the flow of migrants. The stock is “By 2050 this is how many people will have moved” versus “At the moment of 2050, in this moment and time, there are 25 million people who are moving because of climate change.” So there’s a lot of ambiguity in the words that we use and coupled with multi-causality, it’s really difficult to capture numbers.

There are numbers ranging from, like you said, 50 million to one billion. One billion! How do you plan for something that has a range that’s so outrageous? Norman Meyers, an Oxford ecologist, has the number that’s been cited the most—200 to 250 million—and he said that to get to that number required heroic extrapolations. For a researcher to say “I’m essentially guessing based on a lot of data,” really captures how difficult it is to get to a sound number. Now, that said, there are some people that for whom we have a pretty linear causal relationship between sea level rise and departure and a sort of calculable deadline, particularly for small island atoll nations, where several hundred thousand to one and a half million people will have to find new places to go. That seems to me to be a different kind of problem that we can tackle directly. And not tackling it because there are some other complexities about numbers and timelines and causality, et cetera, is unfair to the most vulnerable.

SAGE: When you use the term “we,” who is responsible?

MB: Everybody.

SAGE: Everybody?

MB: I think we all are. I mean, certainly all of us, here in the U.S. Sometimes I’m a little ashamed, when I leave the country, to see how much our intransigence has really impacted other people on this question, on this issue, and not just migration, but climate change more generally. I think we’re all responsible, and that those of us who are the largest emitters are exceptionally responsible. China and India have a different sort of profile than the rest of the developing countries. They have a responsibility as well, but they also have levels of poverty, deep poverty, that hit the population level of the U.S. Our counterparts in Europe have been a lot more mature in their discussion about climate change, both in facing up to the facts, owning it, and having a more well developed approach, even though that approach is still insufficient.

SAGE: New Zealand and Australia lie in close proximity to many vulnerable Small Island Developing States. Should they bear the brunt of offering safe harbor for climate refugees in the South Pacific? Who is most responsible for assisting climate refugees?

MB: I think Australia bears responsibility because it’s a high per capita emitter, it’s wealthy, and it has been an obstacle to further progress on the international scale; it is responsible just on that alone. New Zealand has engaged in the conversation more so even though it is cautious not to set a precedent suggesting that it will continue to host or have a greater responsibility for hosting climate-induced migrants in the Pacific. So, proximity is one thing. The countries that really need to be thinking about Pacific migration are those where there are well-developed migration corridors. It would behoove those countries where there are already communities of Tuvaluans, and Samoans, and Micronesians to be thinking about the possibility of being a host nation and the possible influx.

SAGE: When you use the word “climate justice” what are you speaking about?

MB: A couple of things. I come from the environmental justice tradition. When I first began to think about climate justice I thought about race, poverty, and indigenous communities and their intersection with climate impacts, particularly their vulnerability because of their pre-existing issues, as well as the fact the climate tends to hit those communities worse—heat events in urban centers, storm surge in cancer alley, and those kinds of things. I was thinking that this is sort of the next generation of environmental justice focus. The international climate justice discussion is more human rights based or inspired and is dealing with the Global South. It’s a different nuance, has a different inflection because of that. But I’m basically talking about addressing power dynamics so that we all have a fair shot at thriving in spite of the climate forecast.

SAGE: Do you see justice as being something that is rooted primarily in economics, supporting adaptation mechanisms and so forth?

MB: Yeah, what that climate justice means in practice, I think, is a lot of that. I’m kind of basic about this whole thing. I think we need to aggressively reduce our emissions. Flat. That is the most important climate justice action, the most important action period, particularly for those that are suffering most now and those who will suffer most down the line. Adaptation provisions, the technology transfer, those things are really critical as well, and frankly I do think that there’s room for a conversation about compensation based on loss and long-term damage and reparations. I mean, we all make mistakes, and when you make a mistake and you truly want to make amends, you do what makes the best sense for the person that’s been harmed to the extent that you can. But when your mistake turns into, “Well, I’m making this mistake but I think I shall continue,” then there is a real injustice there, and there’s a real exercise of power with a cost to other people. That seems wrong to me. That seems unjust.

SAGE: You spend a lot of time on university campuses. Are universities sufficiently addressing issues of climate justice?

MB: No. But, no one is, really. I mean, there just are not enough voices, especially in the United States. We’ve been so steeped in the question of climate change, in the science of it, whether or not it’s happening and the extent of whether or not there’s any recognition that it’s happening, and whether it costs too much for us to do something about it. And we’ve had the economist replace the moral philosopher when it comes to answering questions about what we should do about climate change. Once we decide we should do something, then we can employ the economist to tell us what’s most cost effective but prior to that, they’re really out of their depth when they try to make statements about whether or not we should do something about it. I think we’ve been in that morass for so long that it’s taking a while for us to come to the conversation that we need to be having. And I also think there is a real resistance to thinking about this beyond science, generally, because then the harder questions come in. I mean, it’s hard to model, but it’s really hard to decide what to do about shifting your own lifestyle. We started with the science of climate change, we’ve moved to the economics of it, and we’re getting into the law and policy and the ethics of it. I think the new frontier that will be explored more, in the academic realm, is the psychology and the communication of it, and how we change behaviors once we recognize that we’re in a pickle.

SAGE: What other sectors are addressing climate justice in a significant way? The faith community for example?

MB: Some in the faith community, sure.  But my sense is that the force of the climate justice discussion has been coming out of European environmental NGOs. When you go to the negotiations, the small island states are really the heart and soul of the discussion. I mean, they’re the ones that are like, “Okay. Shall I remind you that the impacts are existential for us?” and I think that’s kind of shifting the discussion a fair amount in good ways.

SAGE: You appear to walk a fine line between academic and activist. What do you see as the role of an academic in creating some sort of activism?

MB: For me, my scholarship means nothing if I don’t feel like it’s actually doing something for somebody somewhere. I just don’t see the mission of my scholarship to be an intellectual exercise. There people who just want to think about the field, and there’s a place for that, but I just personally wouldn’t feel fulfilled if I felt like I was writing articles that were collecting dust on the shelf. I feel like they should be pushing the discussion and they should be hopeful in that they are unbound, that they are not restricted to precedent. We are in really unique circumstances and time is of the essence, so I feel like my work has to be relevant to somebody. And actually, sometimes I feel like I’m talking to my grandchildren’s era. I see my and other’s work providing some elements of the blueprint for ways of maybe doing things better. I’m not as brave as a lot of activists, nor I would I be an activist just for activism’s sake. I think it’s important to have something to say, and I do think that a lot of activists do have something to say and unfortunately all people hear is the noise. I describe my scholarship as active scholarship, not activist; it’s action-oriented scholarship. When I describe what I’m doing, I absolutely come from a point of view where I don’t think climate change is in question and that may be a political act for some people but I don’t think it is.

SAGE: So to end on, this is such an overwhelming topic in general. Here in the United States, a lot of people just shut down when you try to talk about it. There’s a lot of uncertainty, it involves a lot of risk, and you alluded to the fact that it involves lifestyle changes. So, given the fact that this is what has been described as a wicked problem, where do you draw your hope to continue your work?

MB: The short answer is that I don’t feel like I have a choice because I have two beautiful kids. I’d known about the climate issue before I had them, and I feel like it was hopeful to have kids. I couldn’t image not having kids, and I want the best for them so I really just feel that I don’t have a choice. Yeah. That’s just really it. There are enough people like me that love their children and we all just need to get a better handle on what the real risks are for them, to them.


Timothy Brown

Timothy is Editor in Chief at SAGE Magazine. A former high school environmental science teacher, Timothy now studies environmental anthropology and writing at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

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