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Do we have a moral obligation to accept millions of climate change refugees?

The following was a letter I received from Canadian Bill Rees to Tim Murray, Director of Immigration Watch Canada on 28 December 2007

Just for clarity, I have argued that if there is a huge increase in ecologial refugees, say the 350,000,000 that might result from a 2-3 m sea-level rise in this century, then we will be asked to take on millions. Whether we have a moral obligation to do so is an arguable point. Fact is that, on a per capita basis, Canadians are as responsible for any human-induced global change as just about anyone else.

The issue here is that at the limits of global biophysical carrying capacity, routine acts of non-essential consumption can result in violent harm to the poor and racial minorities anywhere in the world.

To paraphrase from a paper I wrote some years ago:

It might be argued that wealthy consumers who are ignorant of the distant systemic consequences of their material habits should be excused of responsibility. However, Once we raise to collective consciousness the link between consumption, pollution and eco-violence, society has an obligation to view such violence for what it is. Not acting to reduce or prevent eco-injustice converts erstwhile blameless consumer choices into acts of positive aggression.

Note that, when it is convenient, we claim to be living in a 'Global Village'--trade law and globalization generally has been constructed to reflect this vision. Well, what happens in a real village under the rule of law when one person damages another, intentionally or not ?

In Canada, the most important [common law] tort action today, both in terms of number of claims made and its theoretical importance is around negligence. Negligence law focuses on compensation for losses caused by unintentional but unreasonable conduct that harms legally protected interests. Unreasonable conduct is taken to mean 'the omission to do something which a reasonable [person] guided by those considerations which ordinarily regulate human affairs, would do, or doing something that a prudent, reasonable [person] would not do' (cited in Charles and VanderZwaag, 1998, p80).

Here is clear recognition that fault may be found even in the case of unintended harm if the latter results from careless or unreasonable conduct. A negligence action may be launched in Canada in the event of environmental assault.

The criminal code is even more explicit. Everyone is criminally negligent who (a) in doing anything, or (b) in omitting to do anything that it is his duty to do, shows wanton or reckless disregard for the lives or safety of other persons (where "duty" means a duty imposed by law). A person commits homicide when, directly or indirectly, by any means, he causes the death of a human being, by being negligent (Section 222[5][b], emphasis added).

Now there is no prima facie moral reason why the behavioural standards imposed by international law should not be as rigorous as those required by domestic law. For example, if human-induced climate change is a cause of death and destruction in Bangladesh, then are not countries like Canada and the United States guilty of "wanton or reckless disregard for the lives or safety of other persons" in, for example, their failure to act effectively to reduce their carelessly profligate fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions?

Point: if in our domestic 'villages' our moral obligation to others is formally recognized in both the common law and criminal code do we have any less moral obligation to others whose lives have been ruined in our pointless pursuit of consumption (whether or not this habit has been "foisted on [us] from infancy by relentless marketing, urbanization and grindstone working routines") just because they live in an other political jurisdiction?

Depends on whether most Australians understood, had a choice, had the power to avoid participating in the consumer economy.
I think you have to find out who is responsible for our economy. I don't think that Australia is a democracy. We don't get to choose our economy. It is imposed on us by politicians.

For instance, consider the proposal to blow up portions of Port Phillip Bay then continuously dredge it so that 4 times the amount of containers can be brought in. Many people have protested a great deal about this, but it is almost certainly going to go ahead. Also, the government keeps imposing more houses in increasingly dense suburbs with lots of garages for second cars. Many people go to VCAT and protest, but it hardly ever does them any good. Melbournians would have to give up their jobs and become professional begging protesters if they were to attempt to combat the mass consumerism being imposed on them.

No, I think we need some kind of tribunal trying our leaders - something like a war-crimes tribunal - but this would be an economic growth and consumer crimes tribunal.