Media coverage of refugee situations in Sudan, Iraq, and in Syria has educated us about refugees who have been displaced from their homes due to military conflict. Now a new type of refugee is emerging: climate refugees. Climate refugees are those who have been displaced from their homes due to the impacts of a changing climate. The international community has, thus far, struggled to recognize the existence of climate refugees. But as their numbers grow, governments and international agencies must address their needs.
Currently, few resources exist for the protection and support of refugees who are forced to leave their countries of origin in response to hurricanes, flooding, or drought caused by rapid ecological changes. The UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement address the needs of those who are displaced within their own countries due to natural disaster. But no NGO or agency has oversight in cross-border displacement situations caused by the natural effects of climate change.
Multiple conventions on the subjects of climate change and displacement have failed to address the needs of climate refugees. In 2010, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was the first to officially recognize the distinction of “climate change-induced displacement.” However, the conference did nothing to address the issue. In 2011, the Ministerial Meeting of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees took a similar approach by refusing to refer directly to cross-border migrations induced by climate change-related natural disasters.
As the effects of climate change become more pronounced, governments cannot afford to ignore the existence of climate refugees. This is especially true in the Pacific Islands, where rising sea levels are predicted to partially and fully submerge many islands in the coming decades. Those who live on the islands are at risk of losing their cultural identities, land, property, and livelihoods.
In the case of disappearing islands, it is relatively simple to pin down climate change as the driver of forced migration. In these cases, it is likely that planned relocations for climate refugees will be implemented. However, other climate-related disasters such as drought are not as easy to predict, and affect thousands of people. In these cases, natural disaster is often intertwined with famine or conflict, making the refugee situation even more difficult to manage or mitigate.
Regardless of the exact causes, climate change-induced displacement is just one of the many costs associated with climate change. It is impossible to predict the financial cost of the needs of future climate refugees. But experts have estimated that climate change will cost the world at least 3.2 percent of its GDP by the year 2030.
Independent media has tackled the issue of climate refugees with the production of a new documentary film about “the human face of climate change,” appropriately titled “Climate Refugees.” The film was released to critical acclaim at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. In its investigation of the mass migrations caused by climate change and global warming, “Climate Refugees” brings to light the effects of climate change on human civilization.
Source: IRIN, Think Progress
Photo: Film Independent