Climate refugees: a new plight

27th May 2016
Climate refugees: a new plight

(Creative Commons)

When you think of a refugee, what image comes to mind? A child in a life jacket sobbing in a dinghy, a campsite full of tents and makeshift facilities, a man who has finally touched land kissing the ground? These images of desperation are poignant in our minds; there has been nonstop news coverage of the horrors of displacement for millions of Syrians, as well as the many others fleeing war in recent months.

But today, we are making room for a new kind of refugee – the climate refugee – he who flees his home, culture, and community, due to the inevitability that all will be underwater, or otherwise uninhabitable, indefinitely in the coming years. This is the type of refugee the world is trying to plan for early, because there are millions of miles of coastline and farmland at risk.

As climate change exacerbates extreme weather patterns, some of these communities are already experiencing desperation when a storm comes and floods the only bridge into town, leaving them stranded until the water subsides.

This is the case for Isle de Jean Charles, an island off the southern US state of Louisiana, which is receiving funding to be relocated. The $48 million grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development is part of $1 billion worth of grants meant to help communities adapt to climate change.

There are mixed reviews regarding the program and the notion of leaving home. Some are tired of the stress that comes with wondering whether they will have adequate access to the transportation and infrastructure necessary to support their livelihoods, while others refuse to consider migrating, vowing to die first.

The world approaches the plight of these refugees somewhat differently. Climate refugees are treated with a certain level of understanding; they have no choice but to relocate, as their homes will soon be physically uninhabitable. Refugees of war are often viewed with suspicion and fear – fear that that they will take jobs from locals, or that there may be a few radicalized among them.

The sheer number that have fled Syria, the current culprit for the massive displacement crisis of the world, contributes to the frantic and changing response from Europe to support them. Surprisingly, some would consider Syrian refugees climate refugees as well, due to the 2006-2010 droughts that stripped millions of their rural livelihoods, and paved the way for civil unrest.

Some nations are trying to get ahead of the climate refugee problem by funding projects to move communities together, and before the situation becomes dire. Still, there is no classification for such refugees under the 1951 Refugee Convention, which means that if they fled now, they would not have international protection under refugee guidelines. According to the documentary Climate Refugees, the Pentagon considers climate change a “threat multiplier”, meaning that it will contribute greatly to civil unrest as masses of people migrate at once, putting strain on resources.

Bangladesh is at the forefront of this crisis, as it rests at sea level. If the sea level were raised one metre, 40% of the country’s rice land would be lost, causing widespread famine in the already impoverished country. Then there is the question of where to relocate these communities. There may be more empathy for their plight now, as the numbers are comparatively low; but for the climate refugee, relocation will have to be permanent if there is no home to return to, which makes the problem even more complex, and may alter the global response.

Nations attending previous COPs (Conference of Parties) have pledged funding for climate mitigation and adaptation, but until those funds are distributed, progress cannot be made.

The main problem with environmental refugees is how to classify them. Climate change exacerbates a variety of global problems, but it is often difficult to unequivocally attribute a problem to human-induced climate change.

One example is the fires taking place in Ft. McMurray, Canada, where over 80,000 people have already had to be displaced. It is believed that the initial spark was caused by a person, but some attribute the scale of the inferno to climate change; fire season started a month earlier this year, and warmer temperatures mean more lightning and more evaporation, leading to increased dryness.

Do we call these tens of thousands of displaced residents climate refugees? The label may not matter yet, as these victims have the support of governments and nonprofits. The fear is that, while affluent nations are able relocate communities at risk, the citizens of poorer nations may be left without the support necessary to start new lives elsewhere.

Sarah Sakeena Marshall, B.S. Environmental Policy

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