Why you should care

Millions of people will be forced to flee their homes due to climate change, and so far they have nowhere to go.

From the drowning islands of the Pacific and the storm-battered Philippines to the increasingly barren lands of the Sahel, huge numbers of people around the world are fleeing the effects of climate change. Exact numbers are hard to come by — the most commonly cited estimate is the U.N.’s posit of 50 million refugees by 2020 (maybe more) — but a vast refugee crisis is looming, and so far the international community has done nothing to deal with it. Should industrialized nations, which have done the most to cause climate change, be obliged to support those forced from their homes by environmental crises?

Legally … environmental refugees do not exist.

Such a responsibility, for example, would include providing refuge to displaced communities, such as the populations of Pacific Islands like Tuvalu and Kirabati, which will soon be flooded by rising sea levels. Legally, however, environmental refugees do not exist. The UN’s refugee convention of 1951 only incorporates those subject to danger or persecution by other humans. But times have changed, and international protocols must change with them. Expanding the refugee definition could compel developed countries to allow “environmental refugees” in.

While such a solution could work in the aftermath of acute crises like Typhoon Haiyan, it probably won’t be effective on a broader scale. Jane McAdam, a professor of law at the University of New South Wales, for example, believes “refugee law is not an easy fit” across the board, and she points to a variety of reasons.

Aerial view during a sunny day of an island that looks like most of it is flooded from the Typhoon

Destroyed houses on Victory Island in Eastern Samar province, Philippines four days after devastating Typhoon Haiyan hit the country.

Source Getty

First, there are “problems relating to multicausality,” meaning it is difficult to establish climate change as the sole cause for migration. Second, such an approach could “misplace the focus of the inquiry on to ‘blame’ (who is responsible?) rather than the ‘protection’ of those affected (based on needs and rights).”

Unsurprisingly, affected communities do not want to be associated with the “refugee” label. If they are forced to move, they want to do so with dignity and to contribute meaningfully to their new societies.

So perhaps wealthy countries could present flexible, dignified migration opportunities to groups displaced by climate change. President Anote Kong of Kiribati argues, for instance, that his citizens should be given the chance to access education and training so that as skilled migrants they can contribute to their new societies. And developed countries, whether they describe such migrants as refugees or not, must dramatically increase the number of work visas allocated to citizens from climate-stricken nations.

The threat of mass migration could be a key factor in forcing wealthier nations to take action on behalf of the environment.

Of course, no one will be entirely happy with any one solution. The residents of climate-stricken countries, by and large, don’t want to leave their homes in the first place, and Western politicians, regardless of their party stripes, won’t like the idea of admitting significantly more immigrants.

On a more positive note, this mutual dissatisfaction could actually be a catalyst for change. The threat of mass migration could be a key factor in forcing wealthier nations to take action on behalf of the environment, reducing emissions and combating the major causes of desertification, coastal flooding and increasingly extreme weather. This, in turn, could allow many would-be climate change victims to stay safely put.

Unfortunately, in some cases, like Kiribati and Tuvalu, the damage is already done, and escaping families must be given a place to live and work. But in many other places, change is still possible. By pushing traditionally big polluters to take concerted action on climate change, we could pull communities, cultures and even entire countries back from the brink.



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