A Flood of Refugees

Millions were displaced after Super Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.

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.

This is the second piece in a series on climate change and inequality. Read the first here and second here.

Photo courtesy of the Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department of the European Commission (ECHO).


The Inequality of Climate Change

By Elana Sulakshana

The front page of the New York Times on March 28th featured an article on the plight of Bangladesh—one of the countries most vulnerable to the rising temperatures and sea levels due to climate change. This is an example of the inequality of climate change; Bangladesh and other developing nations hardly contributed to the climate crisis, yet they are facing the greatest risks.

On the Notre Dame-Global Adaptation (ND-GAIN) index of climate vulnerability, which measures a nation’s exposure, sensitivity and ability to cope with climate related hazards, Bangladesh is ranked 147. The index closely resembles a ranking by GDP, with developed nations facing the least risks from natural disasters, increased temperature, rising sea level, and the other impacts of climate change. From 1993 to 2012, Bangladesh was the fifth nation most affected by extreme weather events, in terms of fatalities and economic losses, according to Germanwatch’s Global Climate Risk Index 2014.


Bangladesh is threatened by rising sea levels due to climate change.

The projections for the country are astounding—and terrifying. According to climate scientist Atiq Rahman, executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Advanced Studies, models predict that rising sea levels will flood 17% of Bangladesh by 2050, leading to the displacement of some 18 million people. Bangladesh is also uniquely vulnerable to natural disasters, such as cyclones, and is currently experiencing severe coastal erosion.

Bangladesh is posed to experience huge economic losses as people lose their land and livelihoods, though the nation accounts for just 0.3 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change. Many small island nations are experiencing a similar situation, highly in danger of permanent inundation, despite tiny populations and a minimal carbon footprint. The Carteret Islanders of Papua New Guinea, for example, were forced to move at the beginning of April due to the threat of rising sea levels; the island is expected to be completely underwater by 2015. This makes them the first entire community to be displaced because of climate change.

Just seven countries account for 63% of the carbon emissions from the industrial age through 2005. The U.S. ranks number one, followed by China, Russia, Brazil, India, Germany and the U.K. With the exception of China and India, they are all developed nations. Additionally, many of the emissions of developing nations are due to western countries “outsourcing” their emissions to developing nations with the production of cheap goods. The prime example of this is China. Additionally, when emissions are calculated per capita, the developed countries’ numbers have overwhelmingly higher rates.

Because of this huge discrepancy, the developing nations are holding these 7 nations, and other developed ones, accountable. In recent talks, particularly COP19, the United Nations climate change negotiations in early November, small islands and other developing nations demanded both financial aid and other forms of assistance, such as refuge for migrants forced to flee for climate reasons, from the developed nations.

They spoke of a mechanism of “loss and damage,” a term coined by vulnerable island nations that refers to compensation for the “losses and irreversible damage, including non-economic losses” that have already arisen and will continue to arise due to the climate disruption, according to a statement from G77+China . These same nations staged a walkout at COP19, targeting the developed countries that have refused loss and damage and have consistently held back progress on climate action.

Though the negotiations led to the establishment of the “Warsaw Mechanism on Loss and Damage,” there is still a long way to go to solve these complex issues of inequality within climate change.

This is the first piece in an upcoming series on climate change and inequality.

Photo courtesy of Aftab Uzzman.

Thinking of Food on World Population Day

By Ross Miranti

UN Population Fund

UN Population Fund

This blog post originally appeared on the Brighter Green website on July 11, 2013.

Today is World Population Day, an appropriate day to reflect upon the sustainability of our growing world population. While this year’s theme, “Adolescent Pregnancy,” addresses an important issue, Brighter Green is also interested in the consumption habits of the growing world population – a topic that has not been the focus of a World Population Day since it was established back in 1989. The impact of global food consumption alone has massive repercussions for the climate, food security, fresh water supplies, and the preservation of natural lands.

The world population is currently around 7.1 billion and growing. A few years ago, the UN projected that the world would reach 9.1 billion by 2050, with a 70% increase in demand for agricultural output, though they have since updated their population projections to 9.6 billion people by 2050 – which would logically imply that food output would have to increase even more than 70% by mid-century, based on their previous estimates. But regardless of how accurate this new projection turns out to be, certainly the world population will continue to grow and global food systems will be pushed increasingly hard to produce more food.

One of the reasons why the demand for agricultural output is increasing at a higher rate than population growth is because global diets are rapidly shifting to resource-intensive foods, such as meat, eggs, and dairy, which require much more water and agricultural land. Livestock production currently occupies 70% of all agricultural land, which equates to about 30% of the earth’s ice-free surface. As developing countries start to consume higher levels of animal-based foods, the demand for rangeland and feed crops shoots up.

Expanding food production by 70% or more in the coming decades to meet increasing global demand is problematic if not nearly impossible. Not only has the yield per acre of most major crops leveled out, having approached their biological limits, but climate change is decreasing agricultural productivity and accelerating the encroachment of food production onto forested land. This is a recipe for more climate change, biodiversity loss, and soil erosion.

But as Dawn Moncrief of A Well-Fed World often emphasizes in her organization’s advocacy for a more sustainable global food system, ‘projections are not destiny.’ Just as population growth can be mitigated, so too can global consumption habits, either through public policies or social education. The alternative to active mitigation is a market-driven solution, whereby plant proteins become more popular as the price of animal proteins rise, or a market-driven, Malthusian disaster, in which livestock continues to occupy an increasing share of our food supply – inefficiently cycling livestock feed through animals and rendering our food system incapable of meeting the hunger needs of the world’s population. In the latter case, poor people would be the least food secure because they could not access or afford these high-demand animal-based foods or even other foods grown on the world’s limited arable land.

The World Resource Institute has been addressing the issue of food and sustainability in a series of papers entitled Creating a Sustainable Food Future. It’s first installment calls attention to three important points about food and sustainability for the coming decades: 1) it is necessary to address population and global diet, 2) it will be important to support the livelihoods of small farmers in the developing world, and 3) there is a vital need to decrease the world’s impact on the environment and natural resources in order to maintain adequate food production.

As these and other issues related to global diet and sustainability become more pronounced, global leaders will have no choice but to give the matter greater attention. Who knows, one day we might even have a World Population Day dedicated to what the world population is eating.

Image courtesy of UNFPA