Don’t Look Down

Alex Jean
3 min readFeb 1, 2022


How I learned to stop worrying and love the nation ex-situ

Nothing to sea here, folks

It is well known that the UN and governments go ballistic over the term “climate refugees.” If you don’t believe me, try asking about climate refugees at the UN. You will be told to never say that, because climate change, while unfortunate, is not persecution, but rather, just a thing that is happening to everyone, and if everyone got to be a refugee, well, there’d be no end to it, would there? The UN has bullied so many journalists and advocates into submission, it’s rare to even find an article using the term “climate refugees” these days.

What is less well known is that the UN also goes ballistic at any suggestion that some countries may become uninhabitable due to climate change. The whole idea of “sinking states” is presented as cruel to governments. It may seem logical that if an entire country is under water, its citizens are going to need to move and become citizens somewhere else, but remember that climate change is where logic goes to die. And if you think that the UN should be more concerned with the rights of people than with the rights of governments, you have a decidedly naive view of the UN. Here is an actual paragraph from an actual UNHCR report on climate change, small island states and stateless people (which is what the UN calls people who have lost their country):

“To date, the literature on climate change and statelessness has largely focused on potential statelessness arising as a result of sea-level rise and the possible ‘disappearance’ of small-island States.”

Note the quotes around the word “disappearance,” as if this were still a matter of debate, instead of something that is almost definitely going to happen.

“Most experts, however, have concluded that the ‘sinking island’ scenario will not inevitably leave island inhabitants stateless.”

Won’t it? How’s that going to work? Do you mean that a citizen of the Maldives gets to keep their passport, even if the entire island chain is under water? Is just having a passport from the underwater Maldives going to be enough for them to live their best life, or any life? What do you, the UN, plan to do about this?

“Small-island States have also taken adaptive measures and adopted legal solutions in a preventative manner that have been shown to mitigate both displacement and statelessness risks.”

Oh, there are adaptive measures and legal solutions! Feel free to stop there because I do not require any more information. All my questions have been answered.

“Therefore, the greatest risks of statelessness due to climate change relate not to disappearance of States as such, but rather to the significant numbers of people being displaced in the context of climate change and disasters all over the world.”

So there’s nothing special about small island states, because we are all going to suffer from climate change, so who’s to say if one group of people need extra help? We’re all in the same boat, so to speak, except that some people will literally be in a boat while other people will be sitting in an office somewhere, taking a virtual reality class on semantics.

While the arguments over the use of the term “climate refugees” and “disappearing states” in obscure UN reports might seem unimportant in the larger struggle to prevent the end of the world, it’s worthwhile paying attention to the fact that even the people ostensibly tasked with addressing the problem can’t even talk clearly and directly about it. Instead of talking about what, concretely, needs to be done to help the inhabitants of small island states, we end up lost in a metaphysical sea of vagueness. Stop worrying about drowning, the UN seems to be telling us through all the sound and fury, and join in the argument about the true meaning of “territory” in the 1933 Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States (yes, it’s a real thing), but whatever you do, don’t look down at the water covering your shoes.