What Displacement Teaches us about Surviving Changed Climates

Kali Rubaii, Purdue University

“When I came here, I could not find the right kind of clay,” Ma Jowad[1] told me as she shapes dirt into a paste to plaster her tannour bread oven. Displaced from mainland Iraq, Ma Jowad was one of many farmers who resided in unfinished construction sites in the Kurdish foothills, where everything from soil to social topography was different. She taught me soil science in terms of the “clinginess,” “stickiness,” and temperature of clay, soil, and cement. For her, making a tannour that would stick enough but not too much to bread dough requires experimentation. This location was contaminated with cement byproducts, but nevertheless she tried to use dirt, and later clay from a nearby hillside, and even later, cement itself. The struggle was getting the side of the oven, the dough, and fire to all interact in the right way. Back at home, she knew from “nerve memory” what worked, but now: “this place is new to me. I have to learn like a child all over again.”

Ma Jowad is doing “climate change adaptation,” or to put it my own way, she is living in a changed environment because she is a displaced person. Adapting to rapidly transformed environments as they move, displaced people know climate change well. Their displacement is thoroughly shaped by the role of empire in catalyzing climate change. The Cost of War Project has estimated that the Global War on Terror has displaced 37 million people: 37 million people who have been introduced to new climates in the past two decades, via migration alone, living in ecosystems unrecognizable to their parent’s generation. 37 million people are learning and developing rapid lessons like their many displaced predecessors from diasporic communities who survived plantation slavery (Whayne 2014), global capitalism (Soluri 2005), settler extraction (Voyles 2015), colonialism (Garriga-Lopez 2022), weather crises (Masco 2010), and borderization (Marquez 2012), let alone the political dispossession of those who remain in (Bishara 2022), remain apart from, or return to militarized landscapes (Saleh 2020).

I use the term “climate change” reluctantly, as a phrase deployed by the American right to vanilla the scariness of global warming. “Change,” as opposed to “warming,” is not necessarily bad (that is the purpose in replacing one term with the other). The term “climate change” is a political compromise that, nevertheless, offers useful conceptual openings. For example, this paper addresses how environments do not only change around people as they stand still. Some of the most abrupt, vividly documented, and cutting-edge “climate change adaptations” are based in the experiences and innovations of the displaced, whose environments change because they move to new places, or return to altered ones. While climate change (as in global warming) causes mass displacement, climate change (as in changed environments) is also an effect of mass displacement.

The displaced have a well-documented history of relating to other species and places in newly configured ways, often under stress. This is not exclusive to humans. The Columbian Exchange,[2] facilitated by colonial violence, was one of the greatest mass migrations of species, transforming the entire globe by launching invasive species into new places, wiping out whole populations of indigenous plants and humans, and radically shifting food production world-wide (Melville 1997, Simberloff 2013). Melissa Nelson articulates how survival methods including cultural memory practices are central to how indigenous communities survive relocation, both forcible and not (2008, 2018). These forced adaptations are evident in a place like Iraq, which has seen decades of US sanctions, occupation, and war.

“Did you know that if the entire world started tomorrow with all the recommended steps it takes to prevent climate catastrophe, we would still see a rise on global temperatures as long as the US military continues to exist?” I did not know this until Dr. Firas told me during my most recent visit with him in Baghdad. Dr. Firas is an old friend and doctor treating birth defects in Fallujah. He reminded me of the very overt global ties between militarism and climate change in these simple statistical terms. Indeed, the US military has been identified as the world’s biggest “climate change enabler,” as a catalyst for ecological destruction, and as a major greenhouse gas emitter –the 47th largest in the world, more than most nation-states (DOD 2021, Sanders 2009). The deployment of the US military in warfare alone is a major climate change producer, for both displaced people experiencing new environments and in terms of global warming.

Displacement and climate change are mutual constitutive phenomena integral to military violence. As Catherine Besteman argues, global mobility is increasingly policed and securitized even as migrant labor is in increasing demand by Global North countries (2020). While this is a global trend, insights from specific contexts are not scalable (Yusoff 2018, Tsing 2012). Based on ethnographic fieldwork with Anbari and Kurdish famers in 2014, 2015, and 2021, this paper details how people displaced by these imperial wars are adapting to changed or new environments in ways that inform ground-up approaches to survival. It is organized into three sections: Displaced people on new landscapes, Displaced landscapes for returnees, and Displacing activist politics. Each section has ethnographically informed lessons about ground-up climate change survival.

Displaced People on New Landscapes:

Ma’s Lesson: Let go of purity

As she works the materials around her, Ma Jowad intentionally exposed herself and her grandchildren to known toxins in her new environment in order to adapt. She defined this process as necessary to getting her family connected to the land, or embedding into a new place. Her lesson was one of exposure, contact, and immersion as a generalizable lesson displacement can teach all of us about letting go of purity as we relate to changed environments. This was in 2015. From what I could tell when I visited a few years later, she never did find the right clay. However, she worked at it for so long that she got her grandchildren acclimated to things that made them sick before: the local water had made them vomit in 2014, but eventually they adjusted.

I had forgotten until reviewing my notes that she described climate change in her childhood that paralleled her experience here. I asked her where she got the idea to keep working the materials around her, when others stopped trying or planned to wait until they returned home. She responded: “During sanctions, we had to do the same thing. We had different farming conditions, suddenly, with no imports and exports, we had to save different seeds, and focus on different ways to make strong crops.” She described how “home” changed right under her nose before… the fact that she was the one who moved this time did not alter her mode of adaptation. She tells me, “We always have to start with danger because it is everywhere. Look around… it is everywhere all the time. I mean, think of it, my husband went missing during the Iran war. I can’t expect him to return, and I can’t assume he is dead. That’s just how it is.” She ties her relationship to her environment with the equally uncertain condition of her husband’s long-term status as “missing.” She reminds herself not to wait for perfect conditions, to let go of purity.

Othman’s Lesson: Be transhumant, not attached

Othman developed an entirely new rhythm with his land back in Anbar province from his refuge in Kurdistan. He remained displaced for four years during ISIS-related upheaval. He was displaced for two years before, during US bombardment. He “snapped back” to his original method of keeping his crops alive, developing a total of six years practicing transhumance farming: basically, during military battles, Othman flees with his family and them makes short trips to his farm to fertilize, harvest, or do repairs. It does not always work, since he cannot time his trips according to his trees’ needs but instead to breaks and shifts in military activity.

He talks about military violence like the weather, an integral part of the overall climate. When we planned a trip back to his farm, I asked what day we would depart: “It depends on the conditions. We have to see what the news says, and we will go when the skies clear.” (He was not referring to rain forecasts but to missiles in the sky). When we got to his land, a few trees had died because the irrigation was broken and they were too long deprived of water. I felt sadness for the trees, but he said, “You can’t get attached when you come and go like this. Losing some trees is part of the situation. If you get attached, you will want to stay and fight. Some people do, but that is other tribes, not mine.”

Being transhumant – coming and going in a seasonal pattern—is one way of incorporating displacement into staying and surviving. But this requires a different kind of attachment, one that is looser and more flexible than it might have been otherwise. Displacement and climate change are not only contemporaneous processes, but mutually defined conditions.

Displaced Landscapes for Returnees:

Hameed and Haj Ail’s Lesson: Scale down

Hameed traveled to and from his date farm in rural Anbar while displaced. A few years later, in 2021, he has returned full-time, adapting to a changed homeland. Farming conditions were transformed by and in his absence… His soil was fed water by irrigation. The land itself is very dry without irrigated water, and when this is disrupted for too long, the whole place changes in irreversible ways. The worms, molds, and many microbes that make the soil “rich” die without human cultivation. It takes a long time to rebuild soil and underground ecosystems, especially if it becomes salinized. Hameed calls this a “loss beyond loss” – a loss for which he cannot immediately recover, because more than one factor has been changed for too long. It is what an ecologist would call a “tipping point”: conditions can intensify in an ecosystem for quite a while and still snap back, but once conditions push past a tipping point, it is nearly impossible restore the former conditions (Scheffer 2009). The displacement of humans is part of the tipping point for Hameed’s land. His return, therefore, cannot solve everything, or maybe even anything. Hameed finds himself beyond the tipping point, past the j-curve, after the fear of potential ecological collapse is realized. He is now a local expert in growing dates in an environment that was changed, in part, because of his displacement.

He has bad choices. He could buy a lot of chemical inputs to fertilize the soil synthetically. This will poison the water supply over time, but it will help him capture a yield of dates large enough to stay in business. This prioritizes urgent matters over important ones. Or Hameed could sell his land to an agricultural company. The Iraqi government, restructured by the US, no longer subsidizes farmers like it used to, so the market leans in favor of Big Agriculture. Many farmers who sell have to find other work. Some return as a day laborer on their own land, so this is not a great economic move if he can hold on to his land another way.

Instead, Hameed is scaling down: he grows fewer trees and uses his adaptive model of pollinating the dates with the assistance of onions and his family. (Hameed uses onions to induce nectar production in his date flowers, which assists in their fertilization. He made this discovery out of desperation in 2014 when the air was too dry for the pollen to stick to his flowers’ stamens.) He also started depending on the dates for food, selling fewer and saving more for himself. He is growing a greater diversity of food, too, pushed into subsistence farming. This is not new, exactly. During sanctions, food availability was limited and Hameed ate what his family grew to supplement rations. Hameed’s experiences of climate change are always overtly anthropogenic –sanctions or war– both require him to manage sudden environmental changes: “…We have to be creative. But we also have to lower expectations. My yield will not be as high as it was before. That is just the way it is. I can be disappointed, or I can be grateful. And I can expand the farm later, when conditions change again.” Scaling down is one way farmers adapt without selling their land or livestock. As Haj Ali, a cattle herder, told me: “We are smaller, but we are still here.”

James’ Lesson: Stay shocked

James returned to his hometown in northern Iraq, having been a refugee in England for two decades. At 40, he had spent his first 15 years here, and then returned about 5 years ago. His British accent disappeared as he slipped into Arabic, describing his deep love of the river. “When I was a boy, I would herd goats here. … We went all over this area, along the river here. Oh! Look here, I remember this spot used to be so deep… [after walking downriver] Yeah, see here? I used to swim here. I used to swim all over here, and drink the water, and I loved it so much. Now it smells. You smell that? This is sewage.” For James, a return to his hometown was an abrupt juxtaposition, highlighting changes to his beloved river. He went on: “I think when you go away from home and come back, it shows you how rapidly the whole planet is warming. Like if I returned to England and went to the countryside, maybe I would notice a lot of changes because I have been away. I get so upset, and I want people to notice, but a lot of local people just got used to it. They say, ‘What can we do? Things change.’ I am still shocked. You have to have a little shock to stay outraged, to really organize the community.”

For James, displacement is a catalyst to politics, one that situates him as an insider-outsider. I saw how his shocked state was noticeably contagious and helped with agitation in the grassroots community organizing of which he was a part. I watched him interact with families who seemed complacent about environmental damage and how, over time, he recruited their outrage about destruction.

Displacing activist politics

Ayman’s Lesson: Organize everyone

In 2021, I met a wide range of environmental activists. Many were detained and harassed for putting the environment front and center in the 2018 popular protests and related policy demands. Some were in hiding, some had fled from Baghdad to other parts of Iraq, and others had applications with the UN and IOM to resettle outside of Iraq. They are working for Iraq’s environment from afar, and in hiding, as displaced people. Others, like James, are diaspora returnees.

At dinner one evening with some of these activists, a dish fell and shattered. Ayman jumped with that too-quick, too-strong reaction of someone who experienced a recent trauma. I knew he had been detained by the Iraqi police after being in the Tahrir square protests and that he was based in Baghdad until recently, when he brought his family north. When I asked about his jumpiness, he told me more: he was detained for several weeks, interrogated often, and threatened with torture. “They would take a glass bottle and threaten to sodomize me with it. They did other things, too. They threatened my family… but then I kept telling them, look guys, you need to care about this too. I am talking about the air you breathe, and the water you drink. Don’t you care where this trash ends up? Like this bottle, after you put it up my ass, where will it go — in the river where you get your fish for dinner? Is this the Iraq you are protecting? In the end, I think they were more convinced. Sometimes they seemed to be really concerned and asked me things like, can you tell us if this place has radiation? Can you test my water if I bring some from home? Things like this. It’s a lesson for me: we have to organize everyone.”

Ayman was released just two months before we met. A few days later, his wife was intercepted en route to the grocery store and threatened by secret police. While he was released under the condition that he would discontinue activism, he of course continued to organize even during his detention. His sense of humor and stubborn attachment to his work means he has no intention of leaving Iraq, either, but he would like to leave for just a few years until things calm down for him politically. We strategized ways to get him out, but for now, he continues to work with the knowledge that “eventually they will kill me. If I don’t leave, they will kill me.”

While Ayman is technically “up river” and still connected to the same waterway he loves, he is among many environmental activists estranged from the very places they wish to protect. People like Ayman take with them their expertise in soil science, toxicology, ecology, biology, and their skills in community organizing and grassroots political pressure. Whether returnees or newly displaced, many of Iraq’s grassroots environmentalists are leading from outside, displaced from their usual categories of citizenship and personhood. This follows a global pattern in the political displacement of environmental activists by assassination, threat, and departure/return.


Many of Iraq’s ground-up leaders in climate change adaptation are not self-identified activists, while some are. Their forms of displacement are myriad, as are their theories for surviving in changed environments. As a displaced person in a new environment, Ma Jowad’s lesson was to let go of purity, while Othman’s lesson was the be transhumant and unattached. As returnees to changed environments, Hameed’s lesson was to scale down. And as a politically displaced environmentalist, Ayman’s lesson was to organize everyone.

Given displaced peoples’ diverse expertise in surviving changed climates, their active inclusion is key to practices and policies of climate adaptation. As more and more people are displaced, new categories of political leadership and representation are forming. Displaced people all over the world are taking new forms of leadership worthy of attention in movements for environmental justice. Their efforts are worthy of attention not only because it is just, but also because, as Melissa Nelson reminds us about traditional ecological knowledge, everyone’s survival may depend upon their insights and methods.


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[1] All names are pseudonyms.

[2] The Columbian Exchange refers to the mass transfer of plant and animal species, disease, and human populations between the Americas and the so-called “Old World” in the 1400s, initiated by Christopher Columbus and subsequent contact between the hemispheres.