Refugees International’s annual Awards Dinner has traditionally celebrated individuals who have demonstrated extraordinary leadership and commitment to humanitarian action. This year, due to COVID-19, we’ve transformed the event into a virtual presentation to honor leaders who have significantly contributed to combatting climate change and displacement.
We are proud to present U.S. Senator Edward Markey with our 2020 Congressional Leadership award. Watch his remarks and read the Q&A below with Refugees International President Eric Schwartz.
Eric Schwartz: Senator Markey, I am proud to present you with the 2020 Congressional Leadership award for your crucial work on tackling climate change and its humanitarian implications. You have advocated for the Paris Agreement, demonstrated leadership in the Senate Climate Change Task Force, and introduced groundbreaking legislation which seeks to protect those displaced by climate.
Senator Markey: Thank you so much for this honor. I am so inspired and motivated by all the incredible work that Refugees International does around the world—protecting those who are displaced by crises and working to prevent humanitarian disasters from occurring. Your work in drawing the connections between climate change and humanitarian concerns is truly changing the conversation in the halls of Congress and beyond, and I thank you all for your leadership on this pivotal issue.
Eric Schwartz: How did you come to champion the critical issues of climate change and the environment and their intersection with humanitarian issues?
Senator Markey: I have been fighting on environmental justice issues for a long, long time—stemming from a childhood growing up next to the Malden River, which was so polluted that my mother always warned me never to go in it. Early in my career, I worked with a young mother named Anne Anderson from Woburn, Massachusetts, who found out that her whole community was contaminated by toxic chemicals after her son fell sick with leukemia. Our work together to protect and preserve that community later led to the creation of the federal Superfund program. Those experiences hammered home how an unsafe environment can threaten the safety and security of an entire community.
And then as we understood more and more about how our actions were causing climate change and harming our planet, it all became connected: how we can fight for safe communities by fighting for safe water, a safe environment, and a safe climate.
That’s when I started leading work in the House of Representatives on climate change—including co-authoring the only comprehensive climate bill to ever pass a body of Congress—and I have continued that quest in the Senate. This isn’t a problem just in Malden, or in Woburn, or Massachusetts—an unsafe environment can destabilize any community, anywhere. In my work on the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works and on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, it was clear how much the devastating impacts of climate change have driven some of the recent terrible humanitarian crises.
Eric Schwartz: You have emphasized the importance of federal government leadership in the effort to combat climate change. In the absence of such federal efforts, how do you assess the work, the advocacy, and the impact of states and local officials, and of civil society in the United States on this critical issue?
Senator Markey: It’s been absolutely critical. States, cities, and towns have stepped up and taken the baton of leadership that President Trump dropped. NGOs, foundations, and nonprofits have all put their time and money behind this fight of a lifetime, the fight against climate change. In December 2019, I introduced a resolution to commemorate the success of the “We Are Still In” and America’s Pledge movements, where businesses, nonprofits, and subnational groups have all committed to honoring the commitments made in the Paris Climate Agreement. We need the federal government to back these efforts with money, leadership, and policy targets, but without these ongoing non-federal efforts, we’d have a much tougher road ahead.
Eric Schwartz: Over the years, you have called attention to the fact that millions are driven from their homes due to climate-related events. Traditionally, such forcibly displaced migrants have lacked protections of international refugee law. Legislation you have introduced would change that. Can you tell us about your bill?
Senator Markey: I started working on this bill after conversations with you and other experts opened my eyes to a serious gap in our system of humanitarian protections. Forced migration is increasing in the context of environmental changes and climate-induced disruptions, including weather-related disasters, drought, famine, and rising sea levels. But climate-displaced persons often lack any formal protection under U.S. or international law. Many of them do not meet the definition of refugee — which applies only to those fleeing persecution. This means that these people cannot access resettlement opportunities in the U.S. or other forms of protection. I wanted to draft legislation to address this problem and provide climate-displaced persons with durable solutions. My bill creates a new humanitarian program for those who have been displaced by environmental disasters or climate change — separate from the U.S. refugee admissions program, but with the same benefits.
But we know that resettlement should be a last resort, and that we must take preemptive steps to prevent humanitarian crises from occurring or worsening. That’s why my bill takes on the shared responsibility of climate change adaptation, global disaster risk reduction, resiliency building, and disaster response and recovery. Importantly, it directs the Secretary of State, in coordination with the USAID Administrator, to devise a Global Climate Resilience Strategy and create a “Coordinator of Climate Resilience” position. This Coordinator will oversee all federal efforts to address the slow-onset and rapid-onset effects of events caused by climate change.
Eric Schwartz: At home and abroad, how can the United States support both risk reduction and the building of resilience, to help adapt to the impacts of disasters exacerbated by the impact of climate change—whether in Puerto Rico and New Orleans or Mozambique and Myanmar?
Senator Markey: My legislation on climate displacement recognized that if we can promote resilience through U.S. foreign policy, fewer vulnerable people will be forced from their homes. My bill would enable U.S. assistance to communities facing climate-change impacts based on what I’ve called a Global Climate Resilience Strategy. It would assign clear responsibility to a senior leader for carrying out the strategy, and it would require training for our Foreign Service Officers on how to help other countries better prepare for slow-onset and rapid-onset effects. As climate change accelerates, we have to move beyond the traditional models and structures of international security assistance.
We also need to fully fund our international affairs and global health security budgets, rebuild our global health and international development programs, and reestablish the United States as a global leader in multilateral organizations such as the United Nations and the World Health Organization.
When it comes to building resilience at home, there are commonsense steps we can take right now, like reinstating the Obama-era doctrine of taking climate models into account when planning for federal infrastructure projects, or making sure that money spent to rebuild after a disaster is spent in a way that helps people withstand or even avoid the next disaster. The Trump administration would rather we bury our heads in the sand that pay attention to the way the sands are shifting beneath us.
Eric Schwartz: The COVID-19 pandemic is now a dominant focus of governments around the world as so many millions are imperiled. How will this pandemic affect efforts to combat climate change, and what lessons might be learned from the global impact and response to the coronavirus emergency?
Senator Markey: Thanks for this question. First, I want to say how inspired I am by the way Americans have responded to this crisis, from those working as health care practitioners and first responders, to those working as essential employees at grocery stores or to deliver food to those who need it. Within these stories, we have seen the power that a unified response can have to help slow down a looming crisis. Unfortunately, with the actions of the president and members of his cabinet, we have also seen the avoidable turmoil and devastation that happens when our national leadership doesn’t listen to experts and doesn’t take preventative measures.
There’s a clear parallel here to the climate crisis. We can’t give in to science denial and apathy. We know we are capable of making society-wide changes in response to a threat—we’ll need to deploy that ability again to respond to climate change. The only question is if we will do it now, and avoid the worst of the disaster, or wait until millions more have been displaced and die. It will take a war-scale mobilization to withstand the onslaught of the coronavirus. It will take a war-scale mobilization to adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change—and we now know we can do it.
Eric Schwartz: To end on a more positive note, what gives you hope in the fight against climate change?
Senator Markey: I’m motivated every day by the grassroots energy around addressing this crisis. We have an army of young people who understand this threat and what it means to their futures. We have an army of scientists who are giving us the best possible data about climate impacts—how to prepare for them and how to avoid them. And we have an army of folks like you and those working with Refugees International, who are helping those already facing the effects of climate change. When you see the power and activity behind those fighting for climate action, you know that eventually, we will prevail over denial and delay, and we will win in the battle to create a safe planet for all.
Eric Schwartz: Senator Markey, thank you.
Senator Markey: Thank you, Eric — and thank you to all of Refugees International. Today, in the midst of this global hardship, we need your work to continue now more than ever. You have my deep admiration and will always have a partner in me.