How Calls for Action Become Entangled with Xenophobia: The European Climate Conversation
Chloe is at Sciences Po Paris studying for a BA in Political Humanities. Her piece interrogates the implications of our linguistic choices with regards to discussions of climate migration.
Within the context of the climate crisis, climate migration has become one of the many issues looming on the horizon. The International Organisation on Migration predicts that there will be between 25 million and 1 billion climate migrants by 2050. In 2016, Ségolène Royal, French Minister of Ecology, Sustainable Development and Energy, told the UN “If nothing is done to combat the negative impact of climate change, we will have hundreds of millions of climate change migrants by the end of the century.” These numbers ring out like warning bells. Despite this fear of climate-induced migration (the displacement of people due to changes in their environment or extreme weather events) it still appears as only a fringe concern amongst the plethora of difficulties we anticipate from climate change. We are more accustomed to images of helpless polar bears or forests decimated by loggers than those of displaced people, an image much more frequently associated with the European migration “crisis” of 2015. But climate-induced migration is a key issue and one that is happening as we speak. 5.1 million people in 95 countries were displaced due to climate-related disasters in 2019. Most of this movement occured on a domestic scale - rather than the international cross-border migration that catches our attention in the headlines. It is this cross-border migration that alarmists are using, playing on the fear present in too many European countries, such as France, of the migrant and the “other.” Many within the climate movement adopt the same rhetoric hoping to shock others into action, without knowledge or consideration of what it implies. It is important, then, to think about how we frame the question of climate migration.
But climate-induced migration is a key issue ... Most of this movement occurs on a domestic scale - rather than the international, trans-border migration that catches our attention in the headlines. It is this trans-border migration that alarmists are using, playing on the fear present in too many European countries, such as France, of the migrant and the ‘other’.
Anyone on the European continent in the last decade has seen incendiary headlines on the influx of displaced people - sometimes an appeal for remorse and empathy by using the term refugee but more often, fear-mongering about the consequences of “strangers” filling our lands. However, this is not simply a semantic issue. People who find themselves displaced due to climate change also find themselves in a legal grey area. The 1951 Refugee Convention, which provides protected legal status for refugees, only covers traditional conflict refugees, those persecuted in their home countries, and victims of war. In fact, the term “climate refugee” has no legal basis and is therefore seriously limited in its utility as a term. The remaining terms, “migrant,” “immigrant,” or “displaced-person,” are insufficient. They fail to define the precise status of “climate migrants” and this absence of legal precision leads to them being overlooked. The Paris Agreement does not directly address climate migration’s legal status or the protection of migrants. This complicates the narrative. We know that “refugee” holds a very different connotation to “immigrant” - one inspires a lot more sympathy than the other. By using “migrant,” then, the discussion surrounding climate displacement is legally more accurate but appeals to anti-immigration rhetoric, because they are not perceived as victims as refugees are. Despite the fact that by 2019 the number of asylum applicants has gone down by half, apprehensive views of migration continue to prevail. This situation is summarised by Shada Islam stating, “The number of asylum seekers is now down, but for many EU governments the migration “crisis” will never be over. That is because the problem has never really been about numbers.” This attitude can, unfortunately, be seen daily.
France is an example of a country whose political landscape has been heavily influenced by this rhetoric. Migration has become entangled with discussions of national identity and values, in particular with regards to the country’s laïcité (secularism). The murder of Samuel Paty in October 2020, and the debates and headlines this event inspired, showed me firsthand how rife xenophobic tendencies are in France and the fear that drives them. The murder of a teacher quickly became emblematic of a larger fear of Islamic extremism and the defence of free speech, with President Macron stating that Paty was “killed because he was teaching students freedom of speech, the freedom to believe and not believe.” This was not an isolated event in France, but rather, the latest in a series of events which highlight the Republic’s difficult relationship with multiculturalism. These range from the tragic, such as the Charlie Hebdo shootings in 2015, to the bizarre, such as the burkini scandal of 2016. What unites these occurrences is a particular French anxiety about the infringement of private religious or cultural values into the realm of the republican public sphere, supposedly composed of a homogenous citizenry. This same fear of encroachment on laïcité manifested itself in late 2020 in the controversial Loi contre le Séparatisme. Amongst other things, this law condemns anyone inciting “separatism” to five years imprisonment, along with fines, and deportation for non-French citizens - a special threat to immigrants. When you consider that these events characterise the dynamic between the Fifth Republic and its minority groups it becomes clear why anger and fear towards immigrants manifest themselves so acutely in France.
Overall, immigration has not only been perceived negatively, it has also become intertwined with larger concepts of national identity, opening the door for a wealth of populist rhetoric. Moreover, this fear is only increased by the perception of a “crisis” occurring. As François Gemenne says, framing an event as a crisis “translate[s] into, and justif[ies], short-term, ad-hoc responses instead of preemptive, integrated approaches that may be more appropriate given the global and systemic nature of these phenomena.”
This inflammatory discourse on immigration and crises are nothing new, so how do we apply these observations to the climate movement? One might think that this language with xenophobic tendencies belongs to a handful of nationalists or far-right parties as described previously; this is not the case!
This inflammatory discourse on immigration and crises are nothing new, so how do we apply these observations to the climate movement? The connection so far may appear tenuous - why do words such as “crisis” matter? How can the terms used to define these displaced persons really have an impact? One might think that this language with xenophobic tendencies belongs to a handful of nationalists or far-right parties as described previously. This is not the case. The consequences of this choice of rhetoric can be found in a less explicit realm: the environmental movement itself and political forces championing climate action. The issue of increased climate migration has interacted with the wider concern over the quasi-apocalyptic consequences of climate change. Many who warn of increased climate migration in a European context are not conscious of the underlying argument to their words. What is being said? Is it “I want climate action so as to avoid climate migration because these people do not deserve to lose their homes and have a right to safe living conditions,” or does it resemble “I want climate action so as to avoid climate migration because these people should not come here, to my country?” It rarely is as explicit as this oversimplification - the latter may be cloaked in far more pleasantries - but the distinction remains important. Xenophobic rhetoric is often just around the corner. Some employ it overtly, an example being the Christchurch shooter, Conway, for whom immigration was a form of “environmental warfare.” A more extreme of this is the slogan “Save trees, not refugees” that can be found on a neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer.
Overall, we have seen how xenophobic undertones can underline even well-meaning messages asking for climate action. How can we avoid opening up a space for racist rhetoric within the climate movement, and European politics as a whole? It is tempting to appeal to French citizens, to Europeans, by trying to shift the discussion in order to remind them, us, that we are subject to climate displacement too. Climate migration is not just a foreign issue, happening in a place and time far away. In fact, 70,000 people are displaced annually by extreme weather in Europe. Out of those, 6,200 account for French citizens displaced by 32 disasters which occured in 2019. But that is not sufficient. All this does is shift the narrative onto ourselves, it does not take care of the issue of xenophobic rhetoric. Ultimately, we need to be careful with our choice of words, serve the interests of those affected, and avoid crisis framing to circumvent prejudice.