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Climate-change refugees: A misleading analogy

Published on 08 April 2013
Updated on 05 April 2024

I shall begin with an analogy. “Killing two birds with one stone” is a nice metaphor for what I am about to do: reply to two blogs in one go.

Yes, Katharina: we live by analogies. Since hundreds of millions of years, the unconscious brain is geared to recognize patterns. Most living beings survive thanks to this ability.

A snake-like shape ahead on the dusty road signals to our (fast) unconscious (Type 1) brain that there might be a snake ahead. An emotional signal of fear is triggered instantly and we freeze, or even jump back. We apply the principle: “better safe than sorry”. Enter the (slow) conscious and rational (Type 2) brain: it is curious. From a safe distance it explores the shape. An old piece of rope reveals itself to closer inspection. We proceed.

For most – humdrum – purposes the Type 1 brain suffices. Novelty requires reflection. Analogies are arguments of the Type 1 brain. They are subject to verification by Type 2.

Amb Dumitriu has related that a new concept is making the rounds of international relations: “climate change refugee”. The analogy is obvious. People leaving their homesteads on account or climate change are assimilated to people thrown across the borders by the violence of war. A surge of emotions tells us to “do something” about these refugees – and climate change. A refugee of war has entitlements; so does the climate change refugee – the analogy tells us. But is it the right thing to do?

I shall tread lightly on the fact that “climate change” is (or better, was) the “flavor of the decade.” Governments intending to improve the plight of humanity may find issues – like public health – yielding relief faster to more people than dealing with climate change.

Let us look at the concept more carefully:

  • A “refugee” is a person whom war has forced to cross a national border. Climate change effects may lead to general displacement. Among the millions so displaced there is no logical reason to give preference and entitlements to those who happen to have crossed a national border. (of course, there are administrative issues here in dealing with the effects of trans-border displacement. This should not, however, affect the principle discussion);
  • Climate change has pervasive effects on settlement. The ensuing displacement may yield a complex pattern. There is no reason to favor the “last one” (who comes over the border) as against all persons so affected;
  • Climate change has effects beyond settlement. Why should we focus on settlement to the exclusion of other effects?
  • It is difficult to distinguish the true “refugee” fleeing an impossible situation from those who take the opportunity to move in search of a “better life”. This issue has bedeviled the application of international rules to refugees.
  • Climate change consists of both anthropogenic and natural components. Are we able sort out what is due to human effects?
  • Everyone contributes to climate change – including the poor. Recent estimates put the forcing effects of soot from stoves and household fires to 40% of total. How is one to tackle these effects?
  • Climate change also has positive effects – Siberia and northern Canada may grow more or different crops. If we compensate the losers, we should tax the winners in a symmetric fashion;
  • Economic development is lifting masses out of poverty. Economic development’s collateral effect is climate change. How are we to ask those emerging from poverty to pay?
  • Compensation for collateral damage is a recent rule applying to current effects. We should apply the principle of compensation retroactively, some argue (see compensation for past slavery). Where do we draw the boundary?

One could go on with such reflections. The message is clear: analogies are heuristics. When confronted with a difficult problem, our brain looks for one looking similar, but easy to solve. Then it takes the solution to the easy problem and applies it to the difficulty. Presto! If you think that this is looking for the lost key under the street light, for that’s the only place one can see – you are not far wrong.

As long as there is congruence in the solution, all is well. The emotional response of the Type 1 brain adds urgency and involvement to the rational analysis. This is useful. Sometimes a heuristic is the only way to approach the problem – better than the shot in the dark (Bayesian statistics). In other instances, however, the emotional reaction of the Type 1 brain is a distraction.

PS: in a later blog I’ll tackle the discreet charm of analogies: their ambiguity. The best analogies are the most ambiguous. Their usefulness lies in their uselessness.

4 replies
  1. Petru Dumitriu
    Petru Dumitriu says:

    I ought to say that I find
    I ought to say that I find all your remarks pertinent and your questions on the climate refugees highly relevant. Probably in its evolution to the point where it will generate action, the concept will have to face some of challenges you have enlisted.

    Perception of a reality is perhaps more important than the reality itself as long as we are not certain which is that reality. The Nansen initiative will carry on with the perception which generated it, and the reality will develop in its own way.

    Think of the definition of aggression by the international community! How many years of “practice of aggression” were necessary till the moment the UN membership agreed on a “concept of aggression”?

    • Aldo Matteucci
      Aldo Matteucci says:

      Ambassador – the Nansen
      Ambassador – the Nansen initiative is a wholly good, and modest endeavor. It does not want to create precedents. It follow the line originally laid out by Dunant of the ICRC: help people in need.

      The problem arises is when we move from “doing good” to principles and entitlements. In other words, when lawyers get into the act, as they are wont to do.We establish abstractions that we want to cover the diversity of the CC experience, and find a set of “rules” by which to operate. Consistency will not only kill the cat, but humanity in the process. :=))

  2. Aldo Matteucci
    Aldo Matteucci says:

    Right on the money, Katharina
    Right on the money, Katharina, and patternisation works, for the most. Pattern
    seeking is the basis of Bayesian statistics, and that’s the way we function. Recursive improvement on a wild guess. But 229 will bring more interesting elements into the discussion. Title? Can we persuade Martians? Meanwhile, get yourself BOEHM: Moral origins (read it from about pg. 100 onwards)


  3. Katharina Hone
    Katharina Hone says:

    I find your comment about the
    I find your comment about the human pattern-seeking nature very intriguing. I agree, we reason by analogy and we are pattern seeking. One could make an argument from evolution and survival advantage here. It also reminds me of Michale Shermer’s concept of patternicity. We seek patterns even where they are none, where there is just noise. Shermer takes this further to argue that this is the reason for superstition and even religion.

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