New Orleans This is the moment of Japan. Haiti is still on some of our minds, and living in New Orleans the scars are everywhere and the screams are only barely muffled by the sounds of the streets if your eyes and ears are open to them. A movie called Climate Refugees being offered not only for free but with free beer as well seemed absolutely worth the climb.
The movie’s message was anything but subtle and was well presented in a round-the-world tour of the “human face” that will be increasingly hard to miss as climate change speeds in a seemingly inexorable path towards all of us. Past the interviews with scientists, various experts and the right-left political politicians from Newt Gingrich to John Kerry who understand the crisis is real and immediate, the sharpest points were made on the question of where would all of the displaced people go when their homelands were underwater or dried out and they had no place to call home and no resources to rebuilt or relocate? Looking at various Pacific Island countries, the constant flooding of Bangladesh, and other areas where desertification or rising sea levels could displace tens of millions of people, many forced to migrate with little or nothing to nearby countries with hardly more resources than the ones they had just left, it was impossible to escape the conclusion that impending disasters and countless, preventable deaths were inevitable while our own governments were on holiday.
The other fascinating political point that director Michael Nash introduced in all of this that had not occurred to me as starkly before was the problem of relief for these climate refugees. In a Skype interview after the film, he mentioned that many, including some connected to the United Nations, had lobbied him to change the name of the movie to something that didn’t use “refugees” in the title. There is a division in the aid community it seems, and one of the on-camera interviews summarized this dispute well, around the definition of what it means to be a “refugee” with one side arguing that the meaning should be the classic one where you were an innocent victim of war or political upheaval and the other, emerging side, clearly favored by the movie, that there were new groups of climate refugees that were equally deserving of aid and support. The real argument is likely less about the fine points of debate on relative innocence of victims, than the usual, stark problem of expanding need creating huge pressure on fixed and limited resources.
The movie tried to get more support for its argument by injecting a larger “national security” argument into the debate so that it didn’t come off all mushy and humanitarian, but despite being true that argument was thinner and more speculatively based on military contingency planning and vague insinuations about Al Qaeda recruitment among the displaced and dispossessed. The stronger arguments almost seemed to be the “dollars-and-sense” positivism of many voices towards the film’s conclusion arguing how imminently solvable the climate change crisis might be technically. The simple math of the solutions compared to the incalculable cost of the predictable devastation, relief, dislocation, loss of culture, community, and lives was hard to avoid, though less clearly presented.
Climate Refugees deserves an audience, though that may not happen unfortunately. It seems to have been a pretty big budget documentary ($1.7 M) trying to go the next distance past An Inconvenient Truth when it came out over a year ago at Sundance and elsewhere. A Google search seemed to pull out a lot of the buzz on the film from that period. Nash detailed an upcoming trip through Africa and Asia of showings being sponsored by the U.S. State Department so he’s obviously hustling to make back the costs and get it out there to receptive audiences, and indicated he was “editing to audience” to make the film less USA-centric. It was good stuff that is needs more eyes, and Nash’s personal “call to action” on Skype was spot-on!
In New Orleans the fighting fifty or so who watched the film had to feel, as I did, that we got lucky. It turned out we were being treated by the New Orleans Film Society because they were trying to impress, or so said their executive director in her opening remarks, the organizer of the Global Social Change Film Festival & Institute which is having its inaugural event in Bali in less than a month and planning to come to New Orleans for its 2nd festival in 2012, and rightly wanted to put on the dog for Cynthia Phillips, the festival’s organizer and an ex-American Express executive, now committed to encouraging social change through film. We also heard several movie statements from Chief Brenda Robicheaux of the Houma Tribe in Louisiana talking about the impact of devastating hurricanes pressing the tribe in the direction of their own climate refugee status. Having written of all of us as “Katrina refugees” the entire time that we were blocked from the New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in 2005 by politicians and their armies, all of this hit too close to home and I could easily see the tears in the eyes of viewers all around me as the Chief told her own stories.
New Orleans needs to continue to be at the crossroads of social change in general as it has often been throughout its history, but particularly on these and other issues where we continue to be the sharp edge of the fight and will only really lose when we stop fighting.