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A review by Tamunosai Cookey of Robert Figueroa's presentation to the Water Justice Seminar

Updated: Aug 9, 2021

Robert Figueroa, Ph.D.- Assoc. Professor of Environmental Justice & Philosophy at OSU

"Climate Refugees"

In the past when I heard the word ‘refugee’ my mind would immediately go to the millions of people that have had to flee their hometowns/countries due to things like war, religious persecution or political reasons. I never really thought about the similarly large number of people that have had to migrate because their communities have been destroyed by unfavorable environmental conditions like drought and hurricanes. I was shocked to learn that around 50 million people all over the world today are considered environmental refugees. That is 50 million people who have had to leave behind not only their homes but also their cultures, traditions, and ways of life – their environmental identity.

It is unfortunate that climate refugees are often seen as burdens and are some of the most vulnerable populations we have all over the world. In addition to grieving the loss of their homes and having to deal with the shock of their new environments, climate/environmental refugees must navigate systems that sometimes seek to take advantage of their vulnerable states. Many, over time, undergo a transformation of environmental heritage which comes at the price of leaving behind their own environmental identities and cultural esteems but are still not fully accepted by the local residents, rather are met with disdain and marginalization.

How can we take the right steps in ensuring justice for environmentally displaced persons all over the world? When catering to environmentally displaced people are we satisfied with just relocating them to new environments, putting a roof over their heads and a few dollars in their pockets or should we be looking for ways to rebuild their environmental identity and ensure that their heritage isn’t lost?

Dr. Figueroa touched on a couple of key dimensions of environmental justice that have been implemented in dealing with environmental refugees:

  1. Distributive Justice: this involves the re-distribution of environmentally displaced populations from one location to another. It often contains some form of compensation for material goods that may have been lost. We can all agree that there is some merit to this but there are also a lot of aspects not being covered, aspects that are better addressed through another dimension of environmental justice – recognition justice.

  2. Recognition Justice: This dimension doesn’t stop at the relocation of people and the distribution of property but considers WHO decides what to distribute. It makes us question who exactly, has the right to judge what is valuable to those that have been displaced and what their needs are and considers their environmental identity and heritage. This is a different approach from the top-bottom one often displayed in distributive justice.

Are there flaws in the ways we attempt to execute environmental justice? When it comes to making decisions over environmental values to preserve moving forward are the voices of the people disproportionally affected by environmental injustice (e.g. low income and minority communities) heard? What can we learn from how we’ve handled previous environmental refugee crises like the cases of the Marshallese and Tuvalu migrations and are our policies being formed based on these lessons? Hopefully answering questions like these opens our minds to ways we can improve the quality of life of environmental refugees.

A picture of T'sai smiling at the camera. They have long dark brown braids, glasses, and a cream scarf around their neck.

T’sai Cookey is a first-year graduate student. She moved to Portland from Nigeria in 2019 to pursue a Master of Science degree at Portland State University’s Department of Environmental Science and Management. She holds a BSc in Chemical Engineering from Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Ghana. Her Masters project will involve studying traffic related pollutant emissions within Portland.

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