“We need to acknowledge that we are, unless we make dramatic changes, at the front of seeing refugees as a result of climate change,” New Zealand’s new Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said in her very first exclusive interview with CNN on October 31.
Ardern’s statement emphasizes the issue of climate refugees, formally defined as “persons or groups of persons who, for reasons of sudden or progressive climate-related change in the environment that adversely affects their lives or living conditions, are obliged to leave their habitual homes either temporarily or permanently, and who move either within their country or abroad.”
CNBC reports that currently “26 million people around the world have already been displaced, and that figure could balloon to 150 million by 2050.” The Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) estimates that 41 people per minute are actually displaced due to the effects of climate change, a figure that exceeds the number of those forced to flee due to war or persecution.
The recent hurricanes Irma and Maria that have hit the Caribbean have brought the issue of climate refugees to the forefront once again. To date, Puerto Rico remains in crisis, Barbuda has been abandoned by its 1,600 inhabitants, the British Virgin Islands needs to be rebuilt, deaths have been recorded in Dominica and Cuba, among others.
Unfortunately, the Caribbean disaster is just the most recent in a long list of climate change-related calamities that have resulted in forced migration.
Susana Adamo of Columbia University, in a paper submitted to the United Nations, identifies three climate change impacts that result in environmental refuge and migration. These include:
1. The rise of sea levels
The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) identifies two factors that cause the change in sea levels. These are the melting of ice sheets and glaciers; and the expansion of the volume of sea water. These phenomena happen due to the presence of more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere which traps heat and thus results to global warming.
The rise in water levels has forced people to leave their homes. Recently, several small islands in the Solomon Islands located north of Australia, have been submerged. It was reported that two of those islands, villages have been decimated and its people were forced to leave.
In a interview with The Guardian, Sirilo Sutaroti, a 94-year old villager of Nuatambu Island, one of the areas claimed by rising waters said: “The sea has started to come inland, it forced us to move up to the hilltop and rebuild our village there away from the sea.”
In the United States, a few coastal towns are in danger of being washed away by the sea. These include Tangier Island in Virginia, located in the Chesapeake Bay, and Newtock in Alaska which is gradually being eroded due to the melting permafrost. Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana is the very first U.S. town that has received federal assistance in order to relocate its citizens. At this time, 98 percent of the town has already been washed away.
“Now, there’s just a little strip of land left… That’s all we have. There’s water all around us,” Rita Falgout, a resident of this community composed of members of the Native American Biloxi-Chimmaticha-Choctaw and the United Houma Nation tribes said in an interview.
The beautiful paradise of Maldives, the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu, Kiribati, Tonga, among others are also in danger of going underwater.
2. Water availability
There are several ways in which climate change impacts our water supply. Global warming causes temperatures to rise. This, in turn, leads to an increased rate of evaporation which can cause droughts in dry areas, and the fall of increased precipitation and floods in wet areas.
With droughts come increased demand for water from people and agriculture. In 2014, National Geographic premiered a television series dubbed “Years of Living Dangerously,” a show that focuses on the effects of climate change. In its very first episode, it tackled the issues of drought in Plainview, Texas which forced Cargill, a beef processing plant, to close and let go of its 2,300 employees. In a statement, Cargill cited “smaller, drought-stressed cattle herd and elevated feed costs” as its reasons for the closure. The displaced employees were forced to relocate and look for opportunities outside of Plainview.
The Syrian conflict is perhaps one of the most devastating results that can partly be attributed to climate change. Scholar Peter H. Gleick of the Pacific Institute wrote that “the combination of very severe drought, persistent multiyear crop failures, and the related economic deterioration led to very significant dislocation and migration of rural communities to the cities. These factors further contributed to urban unemployment and economic dislocations and social unrest.”
It must be noted that four years prior to the 2012 Syrian conflict, the worst drought hit the country forcing reportedly more than 1.5 million farmers and their families to move to urban centres such as Damascus, Homs, Aleppo, among others. The migration triggered massive uprisings.
Aaron Wolf, a water management expert at Oregon State University offered this explanation: “You had a lot of angry, unemployed men helping trigger a revolution.”
The conflict was triggered by the rebellion of the people against the Bashar al-Assad government which they blamed for the country’s troubles. Drought and climate change served as the catalyst.
Susan Rice, former U.S. National Security Advisor said in an interview: “Climate change is now well-understood to be a national security issue and a source of stress on a number of underlying causes of conflict: drought, floods, food shortages, water scarcity. All of these drive increased human insecurity, poverty, and can contribute to conflict.”
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3. Extreme weather events
Very recently, several extreme weather events have been experienced in certain parts of the world. India, Nepal and Bangladesh recently experienced massive flooding which has affected over 40 million people and led to the deaths of about 1,300. Western Europe experienced a record-breaking heat wave this June 2017 which even resulted in wildfires. According to Climate Central, Portugal’s “worst forest fire in more than a century” resulted in the deaths of about 64 people. In Spain, more than 1,500 people were evacuated. In the United States, six people died due to the California heat wave, Hurricane Harvey caused catastrophic flooding in Texas, and more than 80 wildfires devastated about 1.5 million acres in nine American states.
According to a draft Climate Change Report that was prepared by scientists from 13 U.S. federal agencies, it is now possible to directly correlate extreme weather events with climate change. The report pointed out that climate change exacerbates specific weather events despite the fact that it is not the entire cause of the phenomenon. For example, the destruction caused by Hurricane Harvey was worsened due to the rise in sea levels.
All of these point to the fact that it is important to face the consequences of climate change, and that a vital consideration is the issue of climate refugees. While there is a recognition that climate change is a driver of displacement, the problem in the words of UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres is that “as forcibly displaced not covered by the refugee protection regime, they find themselves in a legal void.”
The EJF underscores that forced migration due to climate change should be treated as a human rights issue. As such, this should be prioritized by governments, especially developed countries which must take responsibility for being the major drivers of climate change. It is therefore promising that New Zealand has already stepped up and started the conversation on this.
In order to push the agenda forward, it is vital that people like you and me, environmental activists, organizations and policy makers become more vigilant on this issue and ensure that we are planning ahead to accommodate more climate refugees.
What can you contribute towards shedding more awareness on the issue of climate refugees? We’d love to hear your thoughts, experience, research and knowledge.
Title image of national flood emergency response in Pakistan. Photo courtesy of Asian Development Bank.