A Crisis With No Borders

The scale of the climate is global, but propositions on the left have largely confined themselves to the scale of the national and territoriality bounded - any Green New Deal must include free movement

This Friday, millions of people across the world will walk out of their workplaces, schools and universities, as part of the first Global Climate Strike. Each individual has their own reasons for striking, their own fears and hopes. For many, their hopes can be summarised in one three-word phrase which has caught on around the world, appropriately enough, like wildfire: a “Green New Deal”.

What is the Green New Deal? The phrase first began to make its way into the public consciousness towards the end of 2018, when newly elected Democratic representatives in the US (such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) spearheaded a charge to build support for a radical and transformative programme to fight back against climate change. Initially, the Green New Deal was not so much a plan as it was an ideal, a vision of a socialist future where left-wing policies form the core of a strategy to decarbonise the economy.

Those are the two key components of the Green New Deal. It is “green” – the purpose of it is to save our planet. And it is a “new deal” – the method for saving the planet is not incrementalism, but an “ecosocialist” approach where shifting the economy to a sustainable footing is done via left-wing economic policies. For example, the Green New Deal resolution published in the US in February of this year demands the guarantee of “a job with a family-sustaining wage, adequate family and medical leave, paid vacations, and retirement security”, in addition to more classically environmental measures such as switching towards renewable energy.

This is a laudable approach. Capitalism has generated the climate crisis, and it becomes clearer with every passing day that capitalism has no solutions to offer us. However, in one crucial respect, this proposal falls short. As with so many other agendas for tackling the climate crisis, it almost completely ignores the existence of climate refugees and the impact of climate change outside of the West. Instead, the strategy is one that is almost entirely inward-looking, and does not offer answers to one of the greatest questions raised by the climate crisis: how do we respond when tens of millions are displaced by a changing climate?

Here in the UK, Labour for a Green New Deal did not even exist a year ago. Since then, they have gained the support of thousands of people including leading figures with the labour movement; had their motion sent to conference by almost 130 different Constituency Labour Parties; and helped to progress left-wing thought on the issue from a set of well-intended but mostly empty slogans to a serious intellectual debate on how best to tackle the climate crisis. For this, they are to be applauded.

And, to their credit, Labour for a Green New Deal have adopted some progressive and courageous positions on free movement. Their explainer on “Welcoming climate refugees and preventing displacement”, argues for three key strands of policy in this space:

  1. Migrant justice and ending the hostile environment;
  2. Refugee status for those forced to move because of climate change;
  3. Supporting the right to stay through internationalism.

Each of these are noble goals, and in and of themselves they would represent a significant shift in both government and Labour Party policy. The detail of the proposals (which I would very much encourage you to read for yourselves) does in many cases align with policy which the Labour Campaign for Free Movement has long fought for (see our motion to Labour Party conference).

Yet unfortunately, to date, this part of the Green New Deal has largely been absent from the forefront of the campaign. There are understandable political reasons for this: the commitment of the Labour Party and its affiliated organisations to freedom of movement is questionable at best. But the climate crisis and all its terrible consequences will not wait for us, and we do not have the freedom to dance around this issue forever. Sooner or later, freedom of movement will have to take centre stage in the fight for climate justice.

To see why this is the case, let us consider the evidence. Climate science is an inherently complex and imperfectly precise field; mapping changes in climate to population displacement is scarcely an easier task. Nonetheless, leading organisations have attempted to quantify how many people could be displaced by 2050 as a result of the climate crisis. The numbers are horrifying.

The World Bank, in their analysis, project a worst-case scenario of over 140 million people displaced by the climate crisis by 2050. In the worst-case projection of the International Organization for Migration, “predictions of 200 million people displaced by climate change might easily be exceeded.”

Now, these are the worst-case. If we succeed in winning and implementing a Green New Deal, these numbers would be lower, potentially much lower. But even if only half that many people were displaced, or a quarter, we would still be facing an unprecedented human crisis. Europe’s existing border control systems are already a political battleground, even though estimates of the number of people who have tried to enter Europe in recent years sum to no more than a few million. Equivocating and trying to fudge our way through is not an option.

And in recent years, we have been reminded of what can happen when crises of this sort occur. The far-right emerge from the shadows, play on the same old fears, tell the same old lies, exploit the same old prejudices, and demand a Fortress Europe where we leave desperate people to die in their thousands and their millions. The plight of climate refugees will be no different. They will be dehumanised, they will be described as cockroaches or swarms, and they will be made to pay the price for a crisis which is almost entirely a creation of the privileged West.

We have also been reminded that moderate, compromising approaches to immigration do nothing to stop the far right. All over Europe, but most obviously in the UK, politicians across the political spectrum have ceded the argument on free movement to the far right, and then watched in horror as the beast they fed devours them.

By legitimising their arguments instead of fighting them, we hand control of public thought to those who espouse hate. The only way we can create a moral, humane response to the climate crisis is by tackling these bigoted arguments head on. We must make the case for migrant justice, we must make the case for free movement, we must make the case for open borders at the front and centre of our fight for a Green New Deal.

There is no other option. Otherwise, we will create a Green New Deal, but not an internationalist one. It will be a Deal for the lucky few who live in countries relatively protected from the consequences of their actions, whilst hundreds of millions around the world suffer those same consequences. And that is not socialism. That is barbarism.