COP26 Paralysis: Climate Shame

What first comes to my mind about “boat people” are families in rickety boats fleeing from Vietnam in the last days of that war, and now the climate and war refugees in capsizing boats, drowning in the Mediterranean, Caribbean, and on other oceans and seas. During the COP meetings, pricey multi-page advertising supplements in the weekend edition of a major Canadian newspaper are about cruises: an Antarctic cruise with an early bird special priced at $28,855 per person, and another brochure about European River Cruises. This year the destination of the other boat people is offshore islands — like Guantanamo and Manus and Lampedusa.

It is now sold as a luxury to see Antarctica, where passengers can walk offshore “on the sea ice to watch penguin chicks hatch, see the arrival of seal pups and humpback whales”, on cruises probably affordable because of offshore tax havens.

The “Antarctica in Depth” Scenic Eclipse cruise starts from earlybird $19,701, and the Antarctica, South Georgia and Falkland Island earlybird $28,855. The “truly all-inclusive” provides each guest with private butler service, “immersive dining” and “private dégustation”, “separate sleep zone”, indulgent 5,920 sq ft Senses Spa, Scandinavian inspired outdoor vitality pools, and more.

Describing conditions on a home-made boat carrying Haitian refugees on a nearly 700-mile trip, detained as it neared its end on the Atlantic Ocean, Léonie M. Hermantin, director of communications at Sant La Haitian Neighborhood Center in North Miami, described what thousands of people are forced to endure: “Who goes to the bathroom? How do they drink? How do they eat? It’s just horrible. 104 passengers were spread from the bow to the stern, many sitting shoulder-to-shoulder, some grasping onto the sails and standing where there wasn’t enough room to sit.”

The Antarctic cruise ship carries 200 passengers. By comparison, on August 31, 2021, an overcrowded fishing boat carrying more than 500 refugees capsized off the island of Lampedusa. In April 2021, at least 130 refugees drowned when a rubber boat capsized off the coast of Libya. At least 1,146 people died attempting to cross the ocean to Europe between January and June of 2021. The International Organization for Migration said that the actual number of migrant deaths is likely much higher than the number of deaths they were able to verify.

The rickety, overcrowded boats carry the increasing number of climate refugees who are still not classified and legally protected as refugees by the UN High Commissioner on Refugees. They do fall under an expanded category of refugee, leaving open flexibility to interpret obligations and entitlements. In 2020, UNHCR issued the document “Legal considerations regarding claims for international protection made in the context of the adverse effects of climate change and disasters.“ Regardless, the term “climate refugee” is not endorsed by UNHCR, and they are referred to as “persons displaced in the context of disasters and climate change.”

Perhaps the cruise passengers and cruise companies do not know of these other boat people, or perhaps they know but do not ask why this is happening or do not care. Perhaps they do not know of the melting of Antarctic sea ice and ice shelves. The ads depict adorable wonders like seal pups and penguin chicks, not the break-up of ice shelves and the consequent sea level rise that will be catastrophic for the other people. Here are scientific reports about Antarctica just in the last few months:

Edge of Pine Island Glacier’s ice shelf is ripping apart, causing key Antarctic glacier to gain speed June 11, 2021. University of Washington. For decades, the ice shelf helping to hold back one of the fastest-moving glaciers in Antarctica has gradually thinned. Analysis of satellite images reveals a more dramatic process in recent years: From 2017 to 2020, large icebergs at the ice shelf’s edge broke off, and the glacier sped up. Pine Island Glacier contains approximately 180 trillion tons of ice — equivalent to 0.5 meters, or 1.6 feet, of global sea level rise.

Evidence of Antarctic glacier’s tipping point confirmed. April 1, 2021 Northumbria University Researchers have confirmed for the first time that Pine Island Glacier in West Antarctica could cross tipping points, leading to a rapid and irreversible retreat which would have significant consequences for global sea level.

Shipping itself is integrated in the fabric of climate beneficiaries, perpetrators, criminality. International shipping is still exempt under the Kyoto Protocol so that ships do not need to meet binding targets for reducing emissions. The Paris COP 2015 meeting attempted to regulate shipping but it is ignored by the global body that regulates shipping.

Ships use bunker fuel, one of the highest CO2 and sulphur emitting, heat-trapping forms of fossil fuel. “The noxious blend is dirt-cheap, making it possible to charge next to nothing to ship goods internationally.” Ships additionally create “Ship Tracks” that have the potential for changing the microstructure of marine stratiform clouds which intensify heat trapping in the atmosphere. [1]

Shipping companies use “flags of convenience” to license wherever there are minimal or nonexistent environmental and labour regulations. There are many news items about workers trapped on ships for years, sometimes because of Covid lockdown. On October 8, 2021, the Wall Street Journal reported that crews are abandoned on ships in record numbers without food, pay, or a way home, that “failing companies ditch vessels too expensive to repair or too difficult to sell, leaving behind cargo-ship castaways trapped in ports or offshore.”

What should be done immediately?

Stop non-essential economic activities and reserve energy for providing basic necessities to people globally. De-classify international shipping, aviation, and the military as Kyoto-exempt. Open borders for refugees, for people displaced by disastrous living conditions and provide basic necessities and safety to all displaced people.

[1] Barry Sanders, The Green Zone: the environmental costs of militarism, AK Press, Oakland, 2009. P. 54, 71-2.

Judith Deutsch is a psychoanalyst in Toronto. She is former president of Science for Peace. She can be reached at