Western industries and governments have refused to accept responsibility for climate change despite being the main drivers of it. Meanwhile, the Global South and Black and Indigenous communities globally have continued to bear the brunt of its impact. As world leaders gather in Egypt for COP27 — the United Nations Climate Change Conference — will this inequity finally be addressed? Join Vinita and Yvonne Su, Assistant Professor in the Department of Equity Studies at York University, to discuss our responsibilities towards those worst affected by climate change.
Join us on this episode of Don’t Call Me Resilient as we speak with researcher and migration expert Yvonne Su about climate-induced migration and the burden of care that is owed to displaced people.
Recently, there have been some troubling images coming out of Pakistan, where devastating floods have taken the lives of more than 1,500 people and displaced close to 8 million. The floods have also submerged farmlands and spread waterborne illnesses. In total, it is estimated that the floods have so far impacted over 33 million people.
So the picture is bleak.
And a lot of this suffering can be linked to human-induced climate change.
In other words, the global climate crisis has been driven by the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation by western states. Meanwhile, some populations continue to bear the brunt of the impact. Given this, do the United Nations and those states who have contributed most to the problem have the moral responsibility to protect and compensate those most harmed by climate change?
This month, leaders from over 190 countries gather in Egypt for COP27, the United Nations Climate Change Conference. Previous UN climate change summits have been criticized by Indigenous and environmental activists who say the so-called solutions coming out of them have done more harm than good.
Will this year be different? Will leaders be paying attention to real solutions for people in Pakistan that are being displaced right now?
Join us as we speak with Yvonne Su, Assistant Professor in the Department of Equity Studies at York University. Yvonne specializes in migration, including climate change-induced displacement both globally and in Canada. She has a PhD in Political Science and International Development from the University of Guelph and a Masters in Refugee and Forced Migration Studies from the University of Oxford.
You can listen to or follow Don’t Call Me Resilient on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you listen to your favourite podcasts. We’d love to hear from you, including any ideas for future episodes. Join The Conversation on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and TikTok and use #DontCallMeResilient.
Read more: Pakistan floods: will rich nations ever pay for climate loss and damage?
Read more: Loss and damage: Who is responsible when climate change harms the world's poorest countries?
Read more: COP27: Which countries will push to end fossil fuel production? And which won't?
Read more: Wildfire and flood disasters are causing 'climate migration' within Canada
Read more: UN ruling could be a game-changer for climate refugees and climate action
Read more: A Canadian senator aims to end the widespread financial backing of fossil fuels
The unbearable heaviness of climate coloniality by Farhana Sultana
Should we bring back climate refugees? By Yvonne Su
Climate change communication and Indigenous publics by Candis Callison
Don’t Call Me Resilient was produced in partnership with the Journalism Innovation Lab at UBC and with a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.
This is an unedited version of the transcript
Music: [00:00:00] Ow! Ow! Ow, ow, ow. Ow, ow, ow, ow. [00:00:04][4.4]
Vinita: [00:00:05] From The Conversation, this is. Don't call me resilient. I'm Vinita Srivastava. [00:00:09][4.3]
Yvonne: [00:00:11] In terms of the statistics. 35% of global international migration is south to north. And 37% is south to south. So there are more people moving within the global south than self to north. We're very self centred when it comes to this and I think it's very damaging because it just paints the Global South as these kind of greedy invaders looking for jobs and the global north is the best. And we really have to smash that stereotype because that's not the case. [00:00:41][30.3]
Vinita: [00:00:44] Recently, there have been some troubling images coming out of Pakistan where devastating floods have taken the lives of more than 1500 people and displaced close to 8 million. The floods have also submerged farmlands and spread waterborne illnesses. So the picture is bleak. A lot of this suffering can be linked to human induced climate change. This month, leaders from over 190 countries gather in Egypt for the United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP 27. Previous U.N. climate change summits have been criticised by indigenous and environmental activists who say the so-called solutions coming out of them have done more harm than good. Will this year be different? World leaders be paying attention to real solutions for people in Pakistan being displaced right now. Our guest today says it's pretty much an accepted fact that the global climate crisis has been driven by the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation by Western states. While marginalised populations globally bear the brunt of the impact, she says it's appropriate to ask whether Western states have the moral responsibility to protect and compensate those most harmed by climate change. Yvonne Su is an assistant professor in the Department of Equity Studies at York University. She specialises in migration, including climate change induced displacement. She holds a Ph.D. in political science and international development from the University of Guam and a master's in refugee and forced migration studies from the University of Oxford. [00:02:26][101.9]
Yvonne: [00:02:27] Well, way. Welcome, Yvonne. [00:02:31][3.7]
Yvonne: [00:02:32] Thank you so much for having me. [00:02:33][1.1]
Vinita: [00:02:34] As you know, Pakistan has been experiencing devastating floods with rising death tolls and millions of displaced people. And I've been reading terms like climate carnage in the news. And yet when we were researching this episode, we felt like that this enormous tragedy wasn't in the news more. Why do you think that is? [00:02:56][22.7]
Yvonne: [00:02:57] The answer is, is very unfortunate. And it's something that people don't like to think about because it's very harsh. We've been told by the media and by our politicians, the people in Pakistan, they don't matter. We've painted our country and people with dark coloured skin to matter less. They are not painted as human. And that's really unfortunate because as you've mentioned, they're suffering from human caused climate change. And climate change is something that has been mainly pushed by developed countries, by rich nations. [00:03:35][37.7]
Vinita: [00:03:36] The other thing that I keep hearing is that it's just a matter of geography or it's just bad luck that certain people are just lucky to be born in certain places. What are some of the issues at play here? [00:03:48][12.1]
Yvonne: [00:03:49] I think the argument that people are unlucky with their geography is a scapegoat because you can't blame nature. There's no Mother Nature you can take to court. There's no Mother Nature that you can say pay for these damages. It's very convenient for governments who have the responsibility to protect their citizens and to build the seawalls, to put out the warning signs, to evacuate people, to not take responsibility, and to blame the environment and to blame nature. You probably really have heard this politician standing up saying like, we didn't evacuate them in time. We saw the warnings. We didn't build the buildings up to code to withstand earthquakes and floods. You wouldn't hear that. It's much easier to blame nature. [00:04:32][43.3]
Vinita: [00:04:33] Given what you've just said, I mean, you've explained it so well. What responsibility do you think a place like Canada or other Western nations have in this global climate crisis? [00:04:43][10.2]
Yvonne: [00:04:44] They have so much responsibility because we are one of the top emitters per capita. You'll hear over and over again at 27 in Egypt that they're going to say that China is the top emitter, India is the top emitter, but they have 1.3 billion people. So per capita it's about six, I think 46 tons of carbon per capita, an average Canadian emits 21. Let that sink in. 21 per capita per Canadian versus six for Indian or Chinese citizen. Right. And we continue to point the finger at these countries, the developing countries. And, of course, with our energy, we are a big contributor. We need to really look inwards and really clean up our own mess. And I think we really need to push industry. I would I would like to see industry lobbying the government to say, please, yeah, make us do better, set better policies that we must follow. That would be a dream, because the government wants to do what citizens want and what industry wants. [00:05:53][68.5]
Vinita: [00:05:54] Why do you think it's so hard to get governments to take responsibility? [00:05:59][4.9]
Yvonne: [00:06:00] I think because oil and gas is a very strong lobbying group. They have a lot of power and a lot of say in Ottawa. And whichever government is in power, their policies, if it really affects the bottom line, they're not going to get re-elected. The governments are very good at telling citizens that they're going to take action on climate change. Every election, climate change is brought up now, but the actual action that's taken, I think, really matches up with the promises. And because citizens are so busy with their lives and now with COVID and surviving, yeah, you know, everybody's pretty burnt out. It's so hard to stay on top of these campaign promises. So we just kind of end up in this weird cycle where they make promises, they don't do them. And our citizens were kind of just really confused because we thought things were being done. [00:06:49][48.5]
Vinita: [00:06:50] There's something else that you said there, which is I wish that corporations would ask governments to hold them responsible. Is that something that you think will happen? I mean, you're saying that the bottom line is so important. So is there some way to get corporations, you're saying oil and gas to take responsibility? [00:07:07][17.3]
Yvonne: [00:07:09] I don't. It's a pipe dream, actually. Yeah, sorry, but I can't envision it happening, but I feel like that would be amazing. There's a lot of focus on citizens and there's a lot of focus on governments, and I think we're really missing those who truly hold the power. And I think it's industry that's very difficult for citizens and government to hold industry accountable. The mechanisms are not really there. As a citizen, what am I going to do? Write an email? Yeah, right. Boycott. It's really difficult. Yeah. So I think that without more pressure, finding more ways to pressure industry effectively, we're not really going to move the needle too much. [00:07:52][43.5]
Vinita: [00:07:53] I also want to get into your research a little bit. Do you talk about the distinction between climate migrant and a climate refugee? Can you explain the difference between these terms? [00:08:05][11.6]
Yvonne: [00:08:06] So to be clear, a climate refugee is not a legal term. The word refugee is legal term recognised by the 1951 convention, and it's those people who face persecution and are forced out of their country of origin and can't return for reasons of race, for reasons of religion, politics. But climate is not one of the protected grounds. There was a big debate about ten years ago between whether climate refugees exist or are they climate migrants or just migrants. And the team that was advocating for refugee is kind of saying that they need protection. They cannot return, especially in the situation of small island states where they are literally submerged or their situation is so difficult because of saltwater intrusion that they cannot live on their island. So here is a situation where they cannot return. Now you have the advocates are on the other side saying that no, well, they're migrants or they're definitely not refugees because migration of any kind is multi causal. Right. And that makes perfect sense. People move for a variety of reasons. You cannot say that they move just for climate change or just because of climate change. [00:09:16][70.4]
Vinita: [00:09:17] You can't say that? [00:09:17][0.6]
Yvonne: [00:09:18] you can't say it. There's a piece about the head and there's a piece about the heart. [00:09:21][3.0]
Vinita: [00:09:22] Okay. [00:09:22][0.0]
Yvonne: [00:09:23] And the logical head part is like migration is multi causal. It's not only causal, you cannot make the associate association, therefore it does not exist. Full stop, end of conversation. If you think otherwise, you're an idiot. Hmm. And there's the heart, which is like, okay, so these people have been displaced, their crops are all gone, and it's the third world that it's happening, right? They're literally starving. There's nothing they can do. So they're going to move because that's just what you have to do to see the city. They're in the city now. They don't have the skills to take up city jobs, but now they're further. They continue to be displaced and maybe go to a refugee camp, etc., in their search for livelihood. Here you have multiple reasons why they may be displaced or maybe in the city they face some violence because they're from the wrong ethnic group. [00:10:09][46.4]
Vinita: [00:10:10] Right. Right. [00:10:11][1.0]
Yvonne: [00:10:12] But climate change was what started it. And climate change is why they can't go back. [00:10:15][3.4]
Vinita: [00:10:16] Right. They may not have a home there or they may not have access to food. [00:10:19][3.6]
Yvonne: [00:10:20] Exactly. So after this debate about ten years ago and it was kind of settled that climate refugees don't exist, we've just seen people be displaced anyways. Yeah. Right. Stories after. Stories of people being displaced, linked strongly to climate change. So I do feel that there is a shift back to that conversation because people recognise that like logic doesn't care about the human experience. Right. What I explain to you makes complete sense. It's not it's migration. It's multi causal. You can't say it's climate change, therefore there's no climate refugees. Yet people are displaced mainly as a result of climate change. [00:11:01][41.2]
Vinita: [00:11:02] If your home is destroyed by a flood. [00:11:06][3.4]
Yvonne: [00:11:06] You can't return. You can't. [00:11:07][1.2]
Vinita: [00:11:08] Return. Yeah, there's no home there. [00:11:09][1.5]
Yvonne: [00:11:09] I think what's happening is that ten years on, we're seeing a lot more extreme situations. [00:11:16][6.2]
Vinita: [00:11:17] Yeah. So you said 1951, there was a ruling on the definition of a refugee, and that's the United Nations. So. But 1951 would have been a very different time when it came to climate change. [00:11:30][13.0]
Yvonne: [00:11:30] Oh, yeah. [00:11:31][0.2]
Vinita: [00:11:31] So isn't it time for that to change based on our current realities? [00:11:36][5.3]
Yvonne: [00:11:37] For sure. And in the literature and amongst like legal scholars and activists, there's been like regular debates about updating the 1951 convention because it was made in the time after the World Wars. It was a very specific European context. But the people who would say that we can't change it, their argument is rooted in the fact that once you open Pandora's box like you don't know what's going to happen, you don't know what rights are going to get stripped away. [00:12:05][27.8]
Vinita: [00:12:06] What do you mean by rights are going to get stripped away? [00:12:08][1.9]
Yvonne: [00:12:08] Well, if we're going to change the 1951 convention, you can change for the better. You can change it for the worse. [00:12:12][4.0]
Vinita: [00:12:13] Right. Right. [00:12:14][1.1]
Yvonne: [00:12:15] And who is deciding to change the definition? So we've got we've got a lot of things at play. And I think as optimists, we might naturally think, okay, great, if we change the definition, we add, more things are going to lead to more protection. Yeah. What we're not offering, there's people on the other team. Yeah. Open up. Right. Open up that definition because we got to cut it down. Right. We are letting way too many people in in as, quote unquote, refugees. I am a nation that funds the UN. I'm not going to pay. This is what people are very afraid of, is that once you revisit this conversation, it can go many ways and we cannot say for sure that it's going to lead to more protection. I believe in the word climate refugee, even if it's used in a colloquial non-legal term because it communicate the situation more clearly than saying climate migrants. I feel like climate migrant is a very easy scapegoat to not have any states be responsible for their movement and for causing their movement or having to responsibly receive them. And I think that's very dangerous, a very slippery slope, because the second you introduce that, people just kind of don't care. [00:13:30][74.5]
Vinita: [00:13:31] That's the question that keeps coming up for me, too, is who's responsible? Once the U.N. starts, including climate as an option for asylum, then, you know, that means that Western nations have to take responsibility. [00:13:42][11.5]
Yvonne: [00:13:44] They should be responsible. Science is extremely clear. Who has admitted the most historically to contribute to human caused climate change? You got the evidence, we got the receipts. We just don't want to recognise it. And I think it's going to continue to be a big source of tension. And there might be a watershed moment in the future where really this has to change. So if we know all of this, why can't we get our act together as a global community and find solutions, especially solutions to the social aspects, the social tensions that are going to arise? [00:14:19][35.5]
Vinita: [00:14:20] Yeah, it sounds like part of the lobbying that we have to do is in the storytelling as well. We need to tell those stories. [00:14:26][6.0]
Yvonne: [00:14:27] Yes, we do. And I think we need to elevate global voices. The really important myth to bust is that in terms of international migration, the trend is not that those in the Global South are coming to the global north and invading these countries, stealing their jobs. So in terms of the statistics, 35% of global international migration is south to north and 37% is south to south. So there are more people moving within the global south than south to north. We're very self-centred when it comes to this, and I think it's very damaging because it just paints the Global South as these kind of greedy invaders looking for jobs. And the global north is the best. And we really have to smash that stereotype because that's not the case. [00:15:16][48.4]
Vinita: [00:15:17] Let's move a little bit closer to home now right here in Canada. How does the environmental crisis impact communities here? [00:15:24][7.2]
Yvonne: [00:15:26] Heavily, heavily. And there's a lot of environmental racism in Canada that we don't like to talk about. Right. [00:15:32][6.9]
Vinita: [00:15:33] Unpack that term a little bit for us on environmental racism. [00:15:36][2.5]
Yvonne: [00:15:36] So environmental racism is the idea that communities that have lower socioeconomic status, who are poor, who may be indigenous or of people of colour, immigrant communities, they often actually end up being locations where say there are chemical plants. So they're located on areas or near situations that are less desirable or arguably environmentally harmful. And the reason the two come together is because indigenous communities, people of colour, poor communities are often seen to have less political power and less political voice. So they complain less. We've got the situation of the tar sands and there's a lot of indigenous communities that live around the tar sands and their waterways, which they fish and they get their livelihoods from are polluted. So those are examples of environmental racism. And then there's more active forms of it, and it's really uncomfortable to think about. But here's a case study. So in 2011, the government diverted water as a flood was threatening Winnipeg. So there was a flood coming to Winnipeg and the government had to decide what are we going to do with that water? And they diverted it to Lake Saint Martin, where a lot of indigenous communities are. So this natural hazard of flood created a disaster, is what I explained as a natural hazard, which is a flood. And then there's a subsequent disaster which was actually created by the government when they diverted this flood. The super flood led to an evacuation of 18/1 nations and in 2014, over a thousand late Saint Martin. First Nations community members are still displaced. Three years after the super flood. So. That's a situation where the government is actively choosing which communities is going to get harmed by a natural hazard rate. And instead of Winnipeg, where the flood was naturally going and you can blame nature, they diverted it towards 18/1 Nations communities. It's shocking. [00:17:40][124.0]
Vinita: [00:17:42] It is shocking. And the biggest word that keeps popping up into my head is reparations. Is there some kind of conversation around climate reparations? You're talking about many communities displaced right here. [00:17:56][13.8]
Yvonne: [00:17:57] Yeah. Going back to the importance of discourse. So these people are called evacuees in Canada. Right. So if you're impacted by this flood and they attempted to evacuate, you are evacuating. You are an evacuee, even evacuees for three years. Right. [00:18:13][16.2]
Vinita: [00:18:13] Yeah. You're now displaced, is what you're saying. You're not an evacuee? [00:18:16][2.7]
Yvonne: [00:18:17] Yes. So I think, like policy wise, we're really behind and there's no push from the citizen side or the government side to do anything. So let's have actual frameworks. Right. Like we saw lightning go up in flames. Right. And those people are also evacuees. And I think the most optimistic estimate was that it would take two years to rebuild. They're still displaced now, almost two years on. And they will continue to be. Because how can you build a community back up that quickly unless the government is doing a lot of resources? It is not going to happen. And there's a situation where we can learn a lot from the Global South because they've had to rebuild after disasters over and over again. And we know that those projects are decade long projects. So why are we lying to our citizens and saying, we're going to try to get you back in two years? I think that causes more trauma and more community pain because there's no real timeline. There's no real estimate when you can return home, you're probably just told year after year. So that means that's hurtful. [00:19:22][64.6]
Vinita: [00:19:23] You're talking about how you can disrupt some of the ways things have been done before. I mean, it's very clear that we need urgent action. So how do we refocus to prompt the necessary action. [00:19:36][13.0]
Yvonne: [00:19:37] If we are to try to do things properly? It has to be done with community consultation. We cannot just come into these First Nations communities that have been affected by a government choice to create a disaster and then just say, we're going to rebuild your homes and you're going to move in, but sorry, we can't rebuild your homes where they were because they've been affected by the flood and because we had historically put you in a flood zone. It's going to continue to happen happen again. So we're going to move you and our out where there's the land is cheaper and we will rebuild there. That's usually what happens in the global south. It's very top down. The people on the ground that are affected don't have much saying where their new settlement site is going to be. It's usually a place that's far away from their old community. It's usually a place without livelihoods and without commerce. [00:20:25][48.6]
Vinita: [00:20:27] You've broken up really historical communities. [00:20:29][2.2]
Yvonne: [00:20:30] Yeah. [00:20:30][0.0]
Vinita: [00:20:30] You've also put people in places where they can't earn a living. [00:20:33][2.9]
Yvonne: [00:20:34] Yeah. So it's like, thank you for the house. But what about everything else? Mm hmm. Like, somebody's life is not just a shelter. We've seen the Global South with the government spend tens of thousands, millions of dollars to build these resettlement sites. And then the people just can't live there because they don't have a job, they can't find work. The commute is 1 to 2 hours and it's very expensive to get back to the city or do whatever it is that makes them a living. So in a really weird way, we've imprisoned them in these faraway lands where we've said we built them resilient homes, but that's all they have. There's just a shelter. [00:21:10][35.6]
Vinita: [00:21:11] You know, you're talking about some of some of the solutions. Some of it feels very overwhelming. We talked a lot about, you know, government inaction and the unlikelihood that corporations are going to do anything. What about the communities that are facing the influx of displaced people, of climate refugees? [00:21:31][20.4]
Yvonne: [00:21:33] That's a great question because we don't think about that part either. Right. I think that it's very. Normal for the host communities to kind of have their backs up because they think, oh my gosh, we've just received several thousand people that need housing. We already have a housing issue. People already can't get apartments right or jobs, etc. And this is where the forward thinking of the government can really play a role. Like we're at a point where the science is there to predict the likelihood of these hazards in certain areas. So if we can plan ahead and we can kind of, you know, infuse these host communities with resources, with jobs, with housing, that can go a far way to mitigate the tensions because the changes are very natural. We can predict that there will be tensions, of course. So why can't we also have the foresight to give resources to these communities so that they can deal with the influx of people? The trouble we have with politics is that nobody wins any points for foresight. Like right now, everyone is looking out for the next four years. So in a way, we're at a loss because if they don't do it, who's going to do it? [00:22:46][72.9]
Vinita: [00:22:46] What about climate refugees themselves? Is there potential for them to be part of the solution? [00:22:50][3.9]
Yvonne: [00:22:52] Yes, I think so. I think those who are displaced by climate change really have this drive to kind of do things better because they experience the consequences of climate change. [00:23:04][12.7]
Vinita: [00:23:05] So it's partly that they can help put forward a moral argument. We're talking about the future in some ways, and we want to be able to share that. There is something that we actually can do. It's really challenging for an individual, right? Like, well, what can we do? [00:23:21][15.6]
Yvonne: [00:23:22] Well, I think one positive aspect that's coming out of climate excited me is that we do have a generation of students of teenagers led by Greta Thunberg, who are really dedicated to making sure they have a future. So I think that is a silver lining. But it sounds bad because it's born out of such horrible situations that they really have to fight for their future. It really is a climate emergency. Our house is on fire. Yeah, right. As we saw the world burn in 2020, one of all these videos of people escaping fires in their car. So I think that we are having a generation of people who are very dedicated to living more carbon free, zero waste lives. So when it comes to the citizen level, I'm not actually too worried about the citizens because of things like this. People are making choices that are greener. A lot of young people, adults as well. But I think it hits young people differently. Do feel that if they don't make these choices, their future is impacted? The year 2050 is turning around a lot. Right. And for a teenager, they're only 40. Yeah, right. Maybe less than 40 are 2050. And to them, it's like that's supposed to be the end of a good world or most of what a good world could be. So that that injustice really sticks with them. And I think you throw COVID on top of that and they experience two or three years of feeling like they can't do very much. And I think what we're seeing is just going to be a lot of action. I don't think the focus on plastic bags and straws, those are really important to people already making those choices. But I think that diverts a lot of energy away from lobbying the government, lobbying industries. And because any change they make is so much bigger than what citizens can do, it doesn't mean citizens don't do their part. Yeah, I'm just saying that we don't give citizens enough credit for doing their part. [00:25:22][119.7]
Vinita: [00:25:23] Thank you so much, Yvonne, for your time today. It's been very fascinating speaking with you. [00:25:28][4.6]
Yvonne: [00:25:28] Thank you for inviting me. This is great. [00:25:30][1.3]
Vinita: [00:25:33] That's it for this episode of Don't Call Me Resilient. We hope you came away feeling a little less overwhelmed and perhaps a little hopeful about the climate change situation. Let me know. I'm on Twitter @writevinita the that's w r i t e v i n i t a and i t and you can tag our producers at conversationca. Don't forget to use the hashtag, #dontcallmeresilient. And if you'd like to read more about the climate crisis and COP 27, go to the conversation.com. We have more information in our show notes with links to additional stories and research. Finally, if you like what you heard today, please tell your friends about us. And don't forget to leave us a review. Don't call me resilient is a production of The Conversation Canada. This podcast was produced in partnership with the Journalism Innovation Lab. The lab is funded by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada. The series is produced and hosted by me Vinita Srivastava. This episode was produced with the help of Danielle Piper and assistant producer Ollie Nicholas. Our consulting producer is Jennifer Moroz. Rehmatullah Sheikh is our audio editor. Journalism student Rukhsar Ali is our assistant producer. Ateqah Khaki is our marketing and visual innovation consultant and Scott White is the CEO of The Conversation Canada. And if you're wondering who wrote the music we use on the pod. That's the amazing Zaki Ibrahim. The track is called Something in the Water. [00:25:33][0.0]