What is a climate change refugee?

What is a climate change refugee?

By Carly Short

A refugee is someone who has been forced to leave their country after finding themselves in danger. Examples of when this can occur include; during times of war, in cases of political oppression, or as a result of religious persecution. Knowing this, we can define a ‘climate change refugee’ as someone who has been forced to leave their country due to the mounting dangers facing them as a result of climate change. Such dangers may include; rising sea levels, frequent flooding, droughts or heat waves. All such cases would lead to the destruction of infrastructure, disruption to people’s day to day lives and in some cases injury, or even death, may occur. When the destruction and disruption of people’s lives becomes overwhelming, they may feel they have no choice but to move elsewhere, to a safer place. In some cases it may be that people are asked to move before they feel ready, as a precautionary measure. Is this a good idea? Let’s discuss.

My abstract is rather speculative in its nature. ‘This may happen’, ‘it is likely’ and ‘it’s possible’ are all terms we have come to be familiar with when discussing climate change. It is difficult to be definitive when there are so many variables involved and the time scale is large and somewhat uncertain. And this, in part, is why it is hard to come up with a plan of action for how to tackle climate change and its many consequences. However, I believe action is needed, and soon. The old excuse of “we can’t be totally sure so let’s wait a little longer to gain a better idea” is, quite frankly, out of date. If we don’t act soon, the consequences will be huge.

So first up on the agenda is people and how they may be affected by climate change. As mentioned above, climate change is likely to displace people from certain geographical areas due to their being at a high risk for damage from climate change. So how can we predict where this might occur, who will be affected, how many people will be affected, and when all this may happen? We use climate change models.  These models can map, very accurately these days, factors such as; the expected changes in average global temperature, average sea level rise, and concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Using the data collected from these models, scientists can inform politicians of which areas of the globe they think will be most heavily affected by climate change. They can also provide a threshold level for certain parameters and indicate that if levels rise above the threshold, the impacts will be huge. For example, a scientist may calculate that if the sea level rise increases a further 2m then the people living on the Eastern Coast of the US will need to relocate simply because the land will no longer be habitable as it will be submerged.   Such a sea level rise would obviously affect many people living in multiple low level locations across the globe. A prediction of the number of people who would be affected can be calculated by looking at the population statistics we have for present day populations and projecting them into the future. Predicting the time scale for these events is trickier however. The climate models must account for an array of ever changing variables. Most of which cannot be appraised with any great certainty. As mentioned above, it is time to take action with the information we do have, with the predictions we can make, because inaction is far more risky.

But what should this action be? Some people suggest it may be a good idea for people living in places most at risk from climate change to relocate to areas less at risk. Is this a good, viable solution? I don’t think so. This is not addressing the cause of the problem; it is a way of dealing with a consequence of the problem.

First and foremost this must be considered; do the people themselves actually want to move? Some may do, yes, and they are well within their rights to do so. Free movement of people around the globe is, for the most part, a good thing. But many people living in high risk areas do not wish to leave their homes. And why should they? If we can tackle climate change directly, and reduce its negative effects then these people won’t have to move for many years, if at all.

The implications of mass migration would be large indeed. Where would the people go? And would they be accepted wherever they did move to? As much as I hope that climate change refugees would be welcomed warmly worldwide, no matter their origin, my experience tells me that that would not be the case. Let me explain. Whenever someone new or unknown moves into a well established system, they are commonly treated in a cautionary manner from those members of the system who have been there for some time. There are worries about the newcomers being a ‘drain on the current system’, worries about differences in their routines, in their culture, and in their morals etc. In short, people worry about other people, particularly people who are different to themselves. And in general, people do not like change. We are creatures of habit. These are prejudices which are likely to be faced by climate change refugees and they are not fears which are completely unfounded. If masses of people were forced to move into lower risk geographical areas then these areas would certainly be exposed to many new pressures. Examples of this include; the need for more housing, more jobs, and more health care. What rights would climate change refugees have? By fair reasoning, they should have the same rights as the people who are already resident in the low risk areas. Is this likely? If the climate change refugees are given equal rights, will the native people accept this? I envisage much interpersonal tension in the event of mass migration.

If the movement of people is gradual then the elements of the infrastructure which would need to expand could certainly adapt with the changing climate change. But, if forced into large scale change with very little notice, well, it certainly would be a very difficult challenge to manage. And as I hinted earlier, I think this is an outcome we can avoid for the most part by taking more direct actions against climate change. If we can slow the increasing concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide then the effects of climate change will not be so large and the likelihood of people having no choice but to relocate will decrease.

This is a complex issue, as most issues surrounding climate change are.  Complexity should not be a deterrent to action however. Yes, the outcome is uncertain, yes, the implications of change are going to be big. But, as I alluded to earlier, doing nothing is a far more dangerous strategy. It’s time to be brave and to take action.


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