GW Law assistant dean talks climate refugees

Media Credit: Auden Yurman | Senior Photo Editor

Abate said the definition of climate refugees has important implications for the way the existing legal framework protects those affected by climate change.

Randall Abate, GW Law’s assistant dean for environmental studies law, led a lecture about the effects of climate change on vulnerable refugee communities at the law school Wednesday.

Abate said the effects of climate change are progressively getting worse, and the international community must face the challenges that climate refugees face. The event was sponsored by the Environmental and Energy Law Association and the International Law Society.

“The idea here is that it’s not so much a decision, ‘Should I stay or should I go,’” Abate said. “But more of ‘You have no choice but to get out of what you call home.’”

Abate said the definition of climate refugees has important implications for the way the existing legal framework protects those affected by climate change. He said the definitions, which include permanent displacement versus temporary or domestic versus international migration, bring challenges for addressing refugees in different legal systems.

“Are we talking about displacement that takes populations from one nation-state into another and that’s when climate refugee protections would be triggered?” Abate said. “Should it apply to internal domestic displacement? Or should that just be the responsibility of that particular nation to address what displacement occurs within its sovereign borders?”

Abate also spoke about the importance for U.S. and international lawmakers in addressing climate issues early, before effects of climate change on refugees become irreversible.

“What the law needs to do is be able to get out in front of these issues and do vulnerability assessments of populations and authorize the law to take people out of harm’s way before disaster strikes,” Abate said.

Abate said in the international and domestic system, most solutions only react to the problem after a climate disaster, instead of addressing problems before they manifest into disasters.

“A lot of these remedies are very short term and not fully effective, because we’ve gotten to such a level where it’s a crisis that’s already ahead of us.” Abate said. “So we have to think about what the law can do to address some of these challenges in a way that respects and serves these vulnerable communities to the best extent possible.”

Abate said to make any progress in international law takes time, effort and money. He said he thinks solutions will mostly be created at the regional level, because there are so many differing challenges regionally. He also said addressing issues with climate refugees will take creative and determined lawyers who will spend time working the legal system to their advantage.

Abate ended with a personal story of his experience seeing young protestors at Conference of the Parties 26, the 2021 United Nations climate change conference. He said in his childhood, he never thought about the security of his future, but today, young people must think about their “climate-compromised future.”

“It’s a sobering thought and hopefully inspires some way to respond to the issue while we still have a chance,” Abate said.

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