On Friday, Sept. 20, high from witnessing the 10,000-strong crowd that came out for the Boston Climate Strike, I walked past downtown’s Memorial Park, where School Street meets Washington Street. There stand two representations of an Irish family fleeing famine in the late 1840s, clad in brilliant bronze. One family is atrophied and agonizing on Ireland’s blighted soil. The other statue depicts the same family as healthy and hopeful after just arriving on American land.
The memorial is meant to demonstrate the dichotomy of circumstance that those ravaged by the Famine of 1845 faced. But it fails to depict the true reality of discrimination that awaited the Catholic Irish, and still awaits the tired, poor, and huddled masses of refugees who are arriving in the United States from all over the world in search of a new home.
While maybe not the response the memorial is intended to evoke, I could not help but draw parallels between the Irish Famine and the current climate crisis, both in the displacement of millions of people and in the hostility which these migrants and refugees now face.
According to a 2018 World Bank report, by 2050 more than 143 million climate migrants and refugees will leave Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and Southeast Asia. While one-third will be displaced due to weather events such as forest fires and intensified storms that climate change will worsen, an additional two-thirds will be forced from their homes due to slow onset events like desertification and air pollution.
But we don’t need to look far to see these effects — the devastating wildfires in California that have been worsened by the climate crisis displaced 50,000 in the Camp Fire of 2018. Such displacement will become more common with an estimated 13 million individuals in the United States expected to move due to sea level rise this century. Stories of internal displacement in the United States will come to dominate our future, just as America’s past was shaped by the displaced people who earlier arrived on these shores.
Born and raised in Ireland, to an Irish father and American mother, and now having lived in Boston for two and a half years, I often remark on the extraordinary banality of the Irish American heritage. The normalcy of this heritage has been the product of a more than century long campaign to romanticize, satirize, and in turn, desensitize the story of our past by Irish and Americans alike. But in this story of destitute sufferers from the other side of the Atlantic achieving a version of the American Dream, the true lessons of empathy and aspiration have been lost. A loss of empathy for those arriving to this country in similarly hopeless conditions today and a lack of aspiration for bold policies suited to the challenges of our current time.
From those hollow eyed, emaciated asylum seekers from Ireland came a generation of mayors, governors, and presidents who helped define progressive politics in the 20th century. This was because they had family members who could recount the suffering faced by those fleeing Ireland and the hostile conditions many faced upon arriving in the United States. Those tales engendered an empathy that laid the foundations for the progressive, uplifting policies they would be known for.
Now, political leaders such as Representatives Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, whose families’ immigration stories are still so fresh, are among those leading this political moment in proposing progressive policy, especially in relation to the climate crisis by fighting for the Green New Deal.
I am going on strike to demand that more politicians respond to the climate crisis with empathy. And I am going on strike to call for our political leaders on Beacon Hill and Capitol Hill to have the aspirational vision needed to pass the progressive legislation that this climate crisis calls for. For Massachusetts, that entails passing the Mass. Power Forward priority bills that will commit us to environmental justice, equitable green investment, and 100 percent renewable energy by 2035. And for the United States, that means passing a Green New Deal and cutting our carbon emissions in half by 2030 as the United Nations recommends.
If bronze coated memorials are erected to help guide our future decisions by reminding us of our humble past, then let’s ensure that millions more people aren’t forced to flee their homes because of our inaction.
James Healy is a climate activist with the Boston Chapter of the Sunrise Movement, and focuses on issues of environmental health as a Masters in Public Health student at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.