By Elana Sulakshana
Climate change is not just poised to affect plants, coral reefs, insects, and non-human mammals. With rising sea levels, increased temperatures, more extreme natural disasters, and reduced agricultural yields, entire human communities are at risk of displacement. The rise in refugees due to environmental causes is projected be one of the most significant impacts of climate change, affecting millions of people worldwide.
According to the International Red Cross, there are currently more people displaced due to climate and weather-related events than war. However, under the Geneva Convention, these people are not technically considered refugees. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees defines a refugee as someone who is forced to flee their country due to “persecution, war, or violence”. While the official refugee count is 20.8 million, there are an additional estimated 25 to 50 million climate refugees. International law, unfortunately, is silent on this issue.
The Global Governance Project categorizes a climate refugee as a subset of the term “environmental migrant”. This group is defined by displacement “due to sudden or gradual alterations in the natural environment related to at least one of three impacts of climate change: sea-level rise, extreme weather events, and drought and water scarcity”.
Who are these refugees? They are found all over the world—in small island communities in the Pacific, mountainous regions of Nepal, and even New York City’s low-lying coastal areas (think Hurricane Sandy). Yet they are disproportionately drawn from developing nations and from the poorest sectors of society. For example, in the Far Rockaways, which is still recovering from Hurricane Sandy, 27 percent of the population lived below the poverty line in 2011 (in comparison to New York City’s 16 percent).
The impact of extreme weather events is the easiest to envision. Hurricanes and typhoons lead to storm surge and flooding, resulting in the destruction of homes and livelihoods and forcing entire communities to relocate, temporarily or long-term. Low-lying coastal areas and small island nations are acutely at risk, since rising sea levels are intensifying the threat of flooding.
Other changes, particularly warming and precipitation extremes and variability, are leading to the breakdown of traditional food systems, which results in the loss of livelihoods. Hunger and thirst—as agricultural yields decrease and the availability of safe drinking water falls—are compelling people to move.
It is estimated that 250 million people will be forced to relocate by 2050 due to the effects of climate change—a number that is close to the current population of the United States. This raises important, unprecedented questions surrounding where they will migrate, how the law will view them, and their immigration status in other, also vulnerable, nations.
As former Maldives senior advisor Edward Cameron said, “This will be the largest migration in history. This is not migration as we’ve known it before. We’re talking about people migrating from sensitive places into other very sensitive places.”
Movement has already begun, mainly within countries. Due to changing weather patterns, many are making the trek from rural to urban areas, where they are less dependent on the unpredictable climate for their livelihoods.
In Bangladesh, for example, which is facing the gravest threats due to climate change, more and more people are pouring into the capital, Dhaka. Yet, estimates say that 15 million people could be displaced from Bangladesh alone, as 25 percent of the country (including Dhaka) floods. These people will need to find somewhere else to go, along with millions of others around the globe.
Photo courtesy of the Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department of the European Commission (ECHO).