Widgets Magazine


Syrian refugees, climate change and why we care about things

One and a half years ago, I was sitting in the back of a gray sedan next to my Chinese host sister while I grilled her uncle, who spoke nearly-fluent English thanks to travel and an international job, on why China doesn’t seem to care about climate change.

Do many Chinese citizens believe in climate change? What is climate change education here like? Why do you think it is so hard for any sort of meaningful change to be carried out regarding this issue?

I fired off each question and diligently scribbled down the responses. Through this discourse, I began to realize the magnitude of my position in comparison to the other occupants of the vehicle, as well as the nearly 15 million people who inhabited the surrounding city of Shanghai. Yes, I grew up in a small town in a lower-income family and attended a mediocre high school, but compared to most of the world, I was remarkably privileged. While countless Chinese citizens struggled to feed their families or heat their homes, I was studying abroad in their country, taking notes on said struggle. It’s not that they necessarily did not care about climate change or didn’t know enough about it, it just wasn’t high on their list of priorities — a simple question of Maslow’s hierarchy rather than fiery environmental justice.

This pattern can be extended to more than a few issues facing our current society. The story of the Syrian refugee crisis, for example, has garnered its fair share of press lately, and rightly so, with nearly 50 percent of Syrian citizens displaced from their country, targeted by the Assad regime on one side and militant groups on the other. The rest of the world watches these events transpire as reports travel from the conflict points to the refugee camps to Internet news articles. We question whether or not to let refugees live in our precious countries, factoring in the foundation of the United States, terrorism, Islamophobia and, of course, our political leanings.

In this instant, we as a human race are once again failing to realize that funneled hatred onto one particular group of humans is precipitating all sorts of byproduct problems in yet another screwy chemistry experiment. It’s a commonly taught fact that history doubles back on itself. Over 4 million Syrians are classified as refugees by the UNHCR, and this number is swelling in tandem with fears of fellow humans — it’s a pattern we have continually seen throughout our time. So why isn’t anyone doing anything?

The real answer lies within the biology of the human race. You may call it the survival instinct or you may call it selfishness, but either way, it works to accomplish our personal beliefs and to carry out our own particular visions. We are only going to see the world, throughout our lives, through one direct perspective. It takes a vast amount of effort to actively understand the qualms of others, and many of us don’t have enough direct experience, or perhaps we live in or come from sheltered communities, or we’ve had political or religious beliefs sown into our very existences. It’s difficult to quantify and judge your own privilege. In many instances, we may understand the consequences of inaction, but we understandably direct attention toward more immediate crises. For a Chinese citizen working extended hours to pay household expenses, spending that money on a solar water heating system, for example, in place of a cheaper option that gets the same job done just isn’t on the radar.

So where do we fall, then, in the grand scheme of things? Though there may be global efforts to take in refugees or mitigate the effects of climate change, we are restricted and blinded by our own hypocrisy. Global leaders fly expensive, fuel-inefficient jets to world summits discussing which measures to take to combat the climate problem. We argue against allowing refugees to live in our country, forgetting, for the most part, the story of how our ancestors got here, or failing to sympathize with their situation. We can convince ourselves of anything in order to justify our personal wishes, and it’s much easier to do so than to admit it would just be too much of an effort to care about things so seemingly distant.

A glaring hole in this approach, however, is that these issues are creeping closer and closer into our daily lives. When discussing climate change, we are switching our verb tense from future to present. We delay action on the Syrian refugee crisis as thousands more are dying. We must make an effort to recognize our own privilege, sympathize and empathize with the plights of those around us and not approach these very real issues with such a dismissive attitude. Otherwise, we all fail.

Contact Amara McCune at amccune2 ‘at’ stanford.edu.