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Protect the Planet, Save Ourselves: 5 Things You Should Know About Climate Refugees

by Kellie Komorita | Dec 6, 2016 | Sustainability

1] “Climate Refugees” isn’t a new concept.

To paint with a broad brush, a climate refugee is anyone who has to relocate due to climate related complications. The term was first popularized by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) in 1985. That’s 31 years ago. Hell, it’s older than some of us millenials. [1] I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve never heard of the plight of climate refugees until a few months ago. As much as it seems like a painfully obvious byproduct of climate change, I feel quite ashamed that I've been so uninformed. If you're in the same boat as me, let’s talk about this.

2] But it is an expansive and complex issue.

No one area is immune from the effects of climate change and the reasons that a person might become displaced is extensive: floods, earthquakes, rising sea levels, hurricanes, fires, ect. This means that the potential global risk for communities to become climate refugees is expansive. That said, climate change is known to be a “threat multiplier” and can have devastating effects on already struggling economic, political, and social structures. This can make directly tying climate change to the reason someone is fleeing difficult. For example, a person is probably more likely to say that they were displaced due to failing crops and food shortages rather than because of a drought. We've already seen some of this play out through Syria's 5 year drought and it's indirect contributions to the Arab Spring confict. As the UNHCR puts it, "Climate change sows seeds for conflict, but it also makes displacement much worse when it happens." [2]

3] So much so, that international policy makers can't even agree on the right language to use.

There are several different terms floating around to define these displaced people:

  • Environmentally motivated migrants

  • Environmental migrants

  • Environmental refugees

  • Climate refugees

  • Disaster refugee

  • Eco-Refugee

But they all pretty much share the same definition. (Note: For the sake of simplicity, we’ll continue to use the term “climate refugee” in this blog post.) However, according to international law, the term “refugee” can only be applied to people fleeing war or persecution after their government can no longer protect them and have crossed an international border. Climate refugees leave their homes due to the climate as opposed to their government. Like most refugees, if given the choice, they'd much rather stay close to home. So, those who relocate tend to stay within their home countries before it reaches a level where it pushes people across borders.

4] It’s no wonder that our humanitarian policies haven’t been able to kept up.

That said, because climate refugees don’t technically qualify as “refugees”, their safety and human rights aren’t protected under international laws. Policy makers have referenced this issue as being a “protection gap”. [4] This means that communities are not empowered to take preventative steps to relocate before a major climate crisis. They are not guaranteed to receive any monetary aid to relocate after a major climate crisis. They’re not even safe from deportation even if they make it across the border.

A little bit good news: A state-led coalition called the Platform on Disaster Displacement has been established to help build a framework for governments to start using when crafting their own climate refugee policies. [5]

5] But it's happening now.

We are no longer speaking in abstract terms. Rising temperatures in 2015 alone caused the displacement of ~19m people fleeing from extreme weather events. And as we mentioned earlier, no area is immune from climate change, but it seems that small, pacific island communities and those with limited resources to prepare for climate related disasters are most at risk. This is no surprise when according to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), in 2016 so far, global temperatures are approximately 1.2C above pre-industrial levels. [6]

For example: 

  • The island nation of Kiribati (population ~110,000) is predicted to be inhabitable in a few decades as sea levels rise and the migration efforts has already started. [7] [8]

  • ~200,000 Bangladeshis are homeless every year due to river erosion with little to no means to resettle in another country, so they’re pushed inland to more densely populated areas like Dhaka. [9] [10]

And the United States isn’t immune either.

  • The people inhabiting Isle De Jean Charles of Louisiana just received a government grant to relocate due to flooding. [11] [12]

  • Residents in Newtok, Alaska voted to re-located their community due to land erosion, but are unable to move due to lack of funds and seemingly impenetrable bureaucracy. [13]

What can we do?

Continue your work to limit climate change.
If anything, this is just another painful reminder that humanity is irrevocably tied to the environment.

Advocate for fair refugee and migration policies.
While we remain hopeful that the effects of climate change will slow and that people will be able stay their homelands, the science is looking bleak. It is likely that our current refugee and migration policies will be the building block for future policies regarding how to handle climate refugees.

















Kellie Komorita is a brand designer and corgi-illustrator extraordinaire at Modern Species. For more posts from her, click here.

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