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5 Things You Should Know About Climate Refugees

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The Earth’s climate is changing at a rate that has exceeded most scientific forecasts. Rising temperatures, melting arctic ice, rising sea levels, drought, desertification and other catastrophic effects of global warming are not examples of future troubles but are a reality today. Climate change isn’t just about the environment, though; its effects touch every part of our lives, from the stability of our governments and economies to our health and where we live.

­Where would you go if, say, a flood devastated the city you live in? Millions of people­ around the world have been forced to answer this question, and extreme weather disasters and deteriorating ecological conditions will force nearly a billion more to face the same question in the next 50 years. In fact, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has predicted that climate change will become the biggest driver of population displacements, both inside and across national borders, within the not too distant future.

As the world enters the “era of the climate refugee,” here are five things you should know about this impending crisis and the people in the midst of it:

1.) First things first, who are climate refugees?

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A climate refugee is an individual who has been forced to flee their home due to the effects of climate change and global warming. With higher temperatures driving an increase in extreme weather events and generally making the world a less hospitable place, mass global migration and border conflicts are increasing. Where the forest used to be, torrential rains bring barren hills of mud down on villages. Crops wither in the parched earth. Animals die. Melting glaciers and a rising sea swallow islands and low-lying nations, flooding rice fields with salt water. Factories spew toxic chemicals into rivers and oceans, killing fish and the livelihood of generations.  So people flee. Many become internally displaced, others cross any and all borders in order to survive. Unfortunately, many of them discover that their skills, such as herding and farming, are no longer useful after they have relocated, making it difficult to find work.

2.) How many climate refugees are there?

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The United Nations estimates that 36 million people were displaced by natural disasters in 2009, the most recent year for which statistics are available. Scientists predict this number could rise to at least 200 million by 2050 — meaning that within 35 years, one in every 45 people in the world would have been displaced by climate change. However, the true number of climate refugees remains unknown, largely because they have been overlooked by the international community. As researcher Oli Brown described in the International Organization for Migration’s “Migration and Climate Change” report: “There has been a collective, and rather successful, attempt to ignore the scope of the problem… so far there is no ‘home’ for forced climate migrants in the international community, both literally and figuratively.”

3.) What are the challenges that climate refugees face?

Woman, who has been displaced by floods, prepares food outside her tent after escaping from flooded village in Badin district of Pakistan's Sindh province

Climate refugees face a lot of problems – one of which is not being protected by international laws. Despite their numbers, and their need, most nations refuse to recognize their status as refugees. The 1951 U.N. Convention relating to the Status of Refugees defines a refugee as a person with a genuine fear of being persecuted for membership in a particular social group or class. The environmental refugee — not necessarily persecuted, yet necessarily forced to flee — falls outside this definition.

Because the term ‘climate refugee’ is not yet an officially recognized category under international law, “there are no frameworks, no conventions, no protocols and no specific guidelines that can provide protection and assistance for people crossing international borders because of climate change,” according the International Bar Association.

4.) Isn’t this more of a “future problem?”

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Not for the millions of people who are already climate refugees. According to the Norwegian Refugee Council, three times as many people were displaced by environmental disasters last year than by all conflicts and wars in the world combined. Places like Kiribati, the Maldives and Tuvalu are disappearing as we speak, as the sea level continues to rise. The World Bank estimates that with a 1 meter rise in sea level, Bangladesh would lose close to 20 percent of its land mass, resulting in countless deaths and millions of environmental refugees. Facing present problems of crop failure, destruction of fisheries, loss of biodiversity and flooding, many have already fled to neighboring India, where they endure lives of immense misery and discrimination. China, in particular, is a hot spot of environmental disasters as it buckles under unsustainable development, giving rise to rapid air pollution and toxic rivers. Alongside desertification, these man-made catastrophes have already left tens of millions displaced.

5.) Who is most vulnerable?

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It’s already well known that climate change is not an equal-opportunity threat, with its impacts on food production, severe storms, and drought, among others, hitting the world’s poorest nations the hardest. And as we’ve learned, global warming isn’t gender-blind either: Women are especially vulnerable to its effects, making up a shocking 80 percent of climate refugees. Female climate refugees also face unique dangers, including sexual violence and pregnancy-related morbidity and mortality. And in the chaos of displacement, child abuse and neglect, intimate partner violence, and exploitation and trafficking typically spike. Following the Mt. Pinatubo eruption in the Philippines, Hurricane Mitch in Nicaragua, and the Loma Prieta Earthquake in the U.S., the WHO reported that rates of intimate partner violence increased significantly. Likewise, reports from the Sri Lanka and Indonesia following the Asian Tsunami focused on concerns over the protection of women from sexual violence.

The bottom line: climate change isn’t just a remote possibility that scientists will simply work out before it gets too bad. It’s a problem of global scale, and it’s happening right now — and we all need to pay attention to the human costs that climate change creates. As the number of climate refugees continues to rise, the fallout will not only endanger the lives of individuals affected, but could have massive effects for humanity as a whole. Forced movement of people due to climate change has already increased border conflicts and political instability – so much so that the Pentagon now thinks that climate change is a US national security risk.

Now is the time to take action, and no step is too small. While cutting down on the amount of meat you eat or starting a carpool to save fuel may seem too insignificant to make an impact, we can collectively make change happen if we all do our part.


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"Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge." -- Carl Sagan


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