Excerpt: Thanu Yakupitiyage - The Refugee Crisis Is A Climate Justice Issue

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/99/LE_Eithne_Operation_Triton.jpgPhoto courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Laura Flanders: A new study by Cornell University finds that roughly one-fifth of the world's population could become climate change refugees by 2100. The majority of those will be people who live on coastlines around the world including about two million in Florida alone. Escalating refugee migrations, rising waters, and hotter than ever summers may appear to be different crises, but in reality, they are rooted in a joint emergency, says today's guest. We better start addressing them simultaneously. To that end, Thanu Yakupitiyage came from New York's immigration coalition to work as the US communications manager for climate justice organization, 350.org. She is clearly a connector. She's also a DJ. Thanu, welcome to the program. Glad to have you.

Thanu Y: Thank you for having me.

Laura Flanders: This is kind of an interesting transition for you, going from immigrant rights work to the work that you're doing at 350. You were doing communications at both organizations, but what's changed? What's new?'

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Thanu Y. I think for me, I've been in the immigrant rights movement for a decade. I forever and always will consider myself a part of the immigrant right movement, but I think I wanted a change and I also wanted to work on things that had to do with broader impact, because a lot of my work at the New York Immigration Coalition was around the specifics of how do we help support people to stay in New York, the tangibilities of healthcare and education and access, which is so, so important and clearly continues to be important during the Trump administration, but I'm also really ... I think it's important take a step back and really think about why it is that migration happens and I wanted to create space for myself do that and so I transitioned to 350.org because I have a previous background, growing up within the environmental justice movement within Asia.

Laura Flanders: We are big believers in connecting the dots here on the Laura Flanders Show. Before we go there, for a lot of people, they think about the migration crisis, the refugee crisis and they say, "Well, aren't wars causing those crises?"

Thanu Y.: Yeah, absolutely, so that's one of the ways in which we need to think about the refugees crises or refugees crises are the multiple factors that actually lead to a refugee crisis, so if you even look at the situation in Syria, actually in 2008 or 2006, there was a major drought that happened in Syria and that really impacted farmers in a lot of parts of Syria and caused all of this migration from the rural areas into the urban areas and that was also one of the catalysts of the Syrian refugee crisis or one of the catalysts for the conflict. When we look at what's happening in Syria, suddenly it's about war, but there's multiple factors that led to that situation. Some would argue even that the Syrian refugee crisis also actually has to do with climate.

Laura Flanders: Yeah, it does seem as if our immigration, migration, refugee crisis, all of which are somewhat different, are kept very separate from every other category, whether it is industrial policy or trade policy or as you're talking about, climate change policy, we don't want to talk about movements of people in connected with any of those things. Why? Whose interest is being served by us keeping everything so compartmentalized?

Thanu Y.: I would so nobody's interest is being served, but even the term climate refugee is actually a really contested term. A lot of people won't use the term climate refugee.

Laura Flanders: How come?

Thanu Y.: Because they feel like they still can't tangibly state, "Well, it's climate that's causing these people to migrate." I speak about it as climate impacts as climate related migration, because it's always a number of factors, so even if you look at East Africa, you look at Chad, Sudan, one of the reasons why people are getting on these boats and crossing the Mediterranean is because the conditions in their countries are unlivable now. Drought, famine, which leads to political crisis, which escalates political crisis, so even though people don't want to say that's a climate refugee, it is part of a climate impact.

Laura Flanders: Now, is there a danger in ... Climate is already a big enough problem, but some people feel overwhelmed. I know I sometimes do. Is it dangerous to make it even bigger, if you know what I mean?

Thanu Y.: Yeah, climate in and of itself is extremely overwhelming. When people talk about climate change, even myself prior to being in the climate movement, I'd be like, "Oh wow, that's bad. It is getting hotter." People don't know what to do and so I think we're really in the moment where we really need to think about what we mean by intersectionality beyond just saying the word, and so it's really important for the people in the climate movement to really show up for the immigrant rights movements. It's really important for the people in the immigrant rights movement to show up for the climate movement.

Laura Flanders: Now, what about the steps since the climate march? What's been going on?

Thanu Y.: It did not stop Trump from exiting the Paris Climate Agreement and we saw that happen in early June, but I think that what it's done is really intensify people's commitment to climate when you have an administration that is just rolling back any progress we've made. Since then, we've seen hundreds and hundreds of mayors, governors really stand up and say that they're going to take on the Paris Climate Agreement and meet the measures. That's great in theory and that's great in rhetoric and so really the role of organization like 350 is really to hold them accountable, because-

Laura Flanders: It does seem like now what we have to do is have people ... Now what people need to do is say, "I'm for the Paris Accord," which most of us were not happy with in the first place and then suddenly climate heroes.

Thanu Y.: Yeah, and I think that that's something that we have to be careful about, because I think this has been the narrative over the last year of, "Well, we're not Trump," and yet, even if you look back at the Obama administration, the whole resistance against the Dakota access pipeline actually happened during the end of the Obama administration. A lot of major pushback against deportations happened during the Obama administration. He was considered the deporter in chief over 2.-

Laura Flanders: I think statistics were, he deported more people than anyone.

Thanu Y.: Exactly, over 2.5 million people were deported under Obama and so I think that we need to actually really transition out of the rhetoric of resisting Trump and to actually what that looks like tangibly in action.
Laura Flanders: All right, so two things: one, what does that resistance look like tangibly in action? It was interesting to me that I saw one of the articles you'd written on The Root and in the comments section, wow, there's a lot going on.

Laura Flanders: You have people saying, "African Americans don't care about climate. They don't even drive Hybrid cars." Then they had a comment about people saying, "But this is white people have only been concerned about the Dakota pipelines and they didn't even show up when we were being shot in the streets." How you bring these movements together and these communities together is clearly the work that you have taken on. How do you do it?

Thanu Y.: This is the thing. Movements are messy. Movements are not linear. There's a lot of building that goes into that and there's a lot of mistrust, understandably and I think that it really takes people coming to the table over and over again, even if you get burned in order to build a real movement that is multi-racial, that is multi-issue, that really is beyond the buzz word of intersectional.


Laura Flanders: Just thinking intersectionally for a second, I'm thinking about the way that we enforce our response to climate change. At least historically, that's been with government action, government regulation and inspection. If I'm thinking intersectionally about a population that's already over-policed and maybe doesn't have the most positive relationship with federal official or government officials, what does that, as it were enforcement, look like on the climate front?

Thanu Y.: I mean I would say that there's a lot of local initiatives, that it's not like when we talk about changes that we need in our communities. Communities of color are already making those changes and so it's not ... And communities of color are also very wary, for example, of police presence, and so it's not to have it enforced in a top-down way. I think there's a lot of education that needs to happen in order for communities to really advocate for themselves. One of the campaigns that 350 will be launching in the fall is a distributed local campaign, which is about communities all across the country really meeting, pushing towards 100% renewables, keeping the fossils fuels in the ground and stopping infrastructure and that's going to look different in different places. We're a global organization so what we do in the US is not what it looks like in India or in Japan.

More in the episode: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BqZcYX6I3jY


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