Despatch from Berkeley | International

California’s new climate refugees

A firefighter battles a wildfire known in Somis, California, in October.

A firefighter battles a wildfire known in Somis, California, in October.   | Photo Credit: Marcio Jose Sanchez


Nearly 2,00,000 people were evacuated from northern California due to wildfires this year

“Perhaps because the U.S. is such a large, large country, we don’t think in terms of ourselves as being refugees often, even though people are moving. And so, climate refugee is not a term we use to describe ourselves even though every time something like this wildfire happens, clearly, we are moving, you know?” Cynthia Strecker thought aloud sitting in her son’s South Berkeley home. She had moved there following the Kincade Fire in northern California late October this year.

Ms. Cynthia, 73, a retired school teacher, has spent four decades living in the woods in Monte Rio, an idyllic town of just over 1,000 people along the Russian River, about 120 km northwest of Berkeley. But this October 26 was the first time she had to evacuate due to a wildfire. Nearly 2,00,000 people were ordered to evacuate from northern California’s Sonoma County, the heart of the State’s storied wine country.

Climate refugees is not a term that exists in international law, according to UNHCR. Climate change was not known in 1951 when the Refugee Convention was designed in the aftermath of the World Wars. The UNHCR refers to climate refugees as “persons displaced in the context of disasters and climate change”, clubbing them with other Internally Displaced Persons, who are not protected by a legal instrument unless they face armed conflict.

Moreover, movements due to climate incidents rarely evolve into international refugee migration, especially in large countries that offer habitable spaces in other regions.

But the lack of a universal legal framework to deal with climate-related displacements leaves such incidents to be dealt with largely by nation-states. Some fleeing the Kincade Fire camped out for days in their cars in Walmart parking lots and a cathedral as shelters and evacuation centres swelled. For some, this was their second year in a row. As the smoke from the fires spread, commuters in the Bay Area wore face masks handed to them by local non-profits.

The Geneva-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre states that of the 30.6 million people displaced in 2017, 18.8 million were disaster-related. The U.S. ranked sixth among the top 10 countries with nearly 1.7 million people moving due to disaster-related displacements in 2017 alone. That year, China topped the list with 4.5 million, followed by the Philippines with 2.5 million people displaced due to climate-related disasters.

In the U.S., the hardest hit are usually undocumented farm workers. Christie Lubin, who works at the Graton Day Labor Center, an undocumented workers’ union for wine country daily wagers, said many members had lost nearly 10 days of wages and were struggling to pay rent for November. Ms. Lubin, along with her two daughters and their families, had to be evacuated from Graton.

‘Fire tornadoes’

With lessons learnt from extremely destructive wildfires in the past couple of years, CalFire, the State’s fire protection agency, was particularly pro-active this year. Residents also perhaps heeded calls to evacuate more readily than in previous years. Ms. Cynthia considers this sentiment as she sizes up the mind-boggling prospect of fire-proofing her redwood tree shingle-home.

The former Mayor of Palo Alto, Patrick Burt, called these fast-moving conflagrations “fire tornadoes”. He said it is something people had never witnessed before. Palo Alto is a small but wealthy city located in the heart of the Silicon Valley, sandwiched between the global headquarters of Google and Facebook. Administrators here fear a sea-level rise incident. When this reporter asked Mr. Burt how such climate events would be handled in the future, he said: “What is becoming apparent with the risk of massive wildfires and entire communities being eliminated, like in the case of Paradise — this is becoming a first world case of significant numbers of climate refugees. In more affluent countries, there are choices that could be made in the event of a climate-driven mass evacuation, which is the choice of return.”

Mr. Burt added: “A small city administration would not be adequate to address climate change. On sea level rise, we have begun a San Francisco Bay wide coordinated plan, but there is no funding in place. In Palo Alto, we included an adaptation plan and looked at sea level rise and wondered which places to protect and places from where we would have to retreat. Could this be done without mass migration? We don’t know, but displacement might be unavoidable”.

Kunal Shankar is a journalist based in U.S.

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Printable version | Jan 24, 2020 2:00:20 PM |

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