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Strategist calls for 'climate humanitarian visa,' as answer to Biden refugee report

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, HOST:

As the Earth warms, the change in temperature will destabilize the climate around the globe, triggering even more severe weather than we have now and forcing people to flee, to become refugees. That's according to reports issued last week by the Biden administration. They detail what are characterized as the national security risks posed by human-driven climate change. And to be clear, what's called climate migration is already happening due to crop failures, floods, heatwaves, droughts and wildfires across the globe. They have displaced millions in the past decade. Scientists expect that number will only grow.

To help us understand the implications, we've called Ama Francis. Francis focuses on climate displacement as a strategist for the International Refugee Assistance Project. Ama Francis, thanks for being with us.

AMA FRANCIS: Thanks so much for having me, David.

FOLKENFLIK: No way to say this gently, climate migration is a pressing problem. And it appears to be likely to become an ongoing crisis. In coming decades, the U.N. projects tens of millions of people will be forced to move away from their homes. What's happening right now?

FRANCIS: Right now, climate-related and other environmental disasters displace about three times the number of people than conflict within their own countries. So even though we know that millions of people are expected to be on the move, we already know that right now, climate change is a lead driver of displacement. So here in the U.S., by some predictions, we'll have about 13 million people on the move this decade because of just sea level rise. And we're already seeing Indigenous communities in the U.S. who have made the really difficult decision to relocate internally because of the existential threat they were facing from climate change impacts.

FOLKENFLIK: You're among those who've been calling on President Biden to acknowledge publicly how climate change will cause these vast migrations. What do you think of what his administration has just said?

FRANCIS: I think the report is an important and great first step. This is the first time that the U.S. government is comprehensively assessing the impacts of climate change on migration. And really, that's an unprecedented move.

The report is great for a few reasons. One, it recognizes that people are on the move right now and need protection. It also recognizes that there are laws already in place that the U.S. government can use to protect people, like asylum and refugee laws. And another thing that the report does, which is great, is it calls for new immigration laws to make sure that people on the move, everyone has a safe place to call home. And finally, the report sets up an interagency task force to really carry the work forward.

That being said, this report is just a first step. We need concrete action. We need actual recommendations. And it'll be really important in the next few months to have the administration really take that work forward in a meaningful way.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, look; you just referred to the possibility of new legal protections, new definitions for people fleeing the impacts of climate change. You're a lawyer. What do you think those protections should look like?

FRANCIS: I think we need a climate-humanitarian visa. And what that would actually mean is that if you are a person from a climate-vulnerable region where you - say you're a farmer, and your crops have been failing for the last five years, and your family has been starving. The U.S. government would say, OK, there's a way for you to come and seek shelter here. We understand that it's really hard for you to sustain life where you are because of climate impacts.

And so as a first step, the U.S. would define a set of countries that are climate vulnerable. And people from those countries would be off the bat eligible. But then there'd be a second level of eligibility where the most vulnerable people in those countries or regions would actually be the ones to be able to access this visa. For example, if there's a hurricane and the government is responsible for distributing relief, but your government is also homophobic and you're a gay person, you might not be able to access those resources to actually recover from that disaster, which would put you in an especially vulnerable situation.

FOLKENFLIK: Looking forward, the U.N. Climate Change Conference starts a week from today in Glasgow. What specific actions or steps do you seek there to make a difference for such mass migration?

FRANCIS: Yeah. I think at the U.N. level, a really big development has been this establishment of a task force on displacement. And that was set up by the Paris Agreement in 2015. And the Task Force on Displacement released a set of recommendations about how countries can avert and minimize and address displacement. And what we've seen is that the conversation about climate displacement has been really sidelined. There's no agenda item that specifically addresses climate displacement. And so even if - these talks that are coming up this year are really centered around this question of survival. There's a lot of steps to getting to governments providing financial resources. That's definitely part of the answer. But to even get there, we need to have the conversation.

FOLKENFLIK: This is daunting stuff. What hope can you offer that serious action, serious resolve can make a difference?

FRANCIS: I think the pandemic has been a really hard time for a lot of people. And the pandemic has also shown us that we can change. We can make really massive changes to how we get around or what services look like. And to me, that does give me some hope, because we really see that what happens somewhere else affects us here and that we're only as strong as the most vulnerable person in our community. At a personal level, I believe that we have it in us to really dig down and make the changes that we need to.

FOLKENFLIK: That's Ama Francis, a strategist with the International Refugee Assistance Project. Ama Francis, thanks so much for joining us.

FRANCIS: Thanks, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.