Millions of people around the world have been or will be displaced due to extreme drought, flooding, sea-level rise, and a number of other issues caused by climate change. According to a World Bank report, “without urgent global and national climate action, Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America could see more than 140 million people move within their countries’ borders by 2050.”
Without efforts from governments, where will these people go? In international refugee law, the term “climate refugees” does not exist entirely. The 1951 Refugee Convention gives protection to “those fleeing war and conflict who face persecution along grounds of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion.” So, for example, a family forced to flee their country due to a drought that decreased crop production may struggle to find legal protection as refugees.
Therefore, this is not just a climate issue: this is a threat to human rights. In countries where climate change’s impact on crop production and extreme weather is already being recorded, governments must take action immediately to mitigate the effects of climate change.
This includes the United States. Studies have shown that Americans living in coastal areas may be forced to flee inland in the near future. In fact, this migration has already occured. An increase in extreme weather events such as hurricanes, due to climate change, have already destroyed entire towns and displaced millions of people. Establishing measures to aid them is crucial.
Sea level rise is another threat that will manifest over the next century, permanently displacing many more. About 2,300 Puerto Rican families who were displaced by Hurricane Maria (2017) were still looking for permanent housing in 2018. Government officials are currently working on preemptively relocating small coastal communities in Alaska and Louisiana that are already being overcome by the rising sea levels. An article from urban.org states that “resilience in the U.S. must be defined by the capacity to manage regional migration as much as it’s defined by adaptation in the places that are most vulnerable to flooding, drought, heat, and other climate change effects.”
Environmental changes have a very pronounced impact on Africa for a number of reasons. Firstly, the continent is highly dependent on agriculture, which climate change directly affects. Secondly, their infrastructure is not sturdy enough to withstand the impacts of extreme weather. Thirdly, Lake Chad, one of Africa’s largest lakes, has shrunk about 90% since the 1960s. This is due to reduced precipitation, caused by climate change. This has caused fishermen to lose their jobs, and made farmers struggle with irrigation issues. As a result of these environmental effects, The World Bank predicts that there will be up to 70 million migrants from Africa by the year 2050. World leaders must highlight people in danger of being displaced in their efforts for climate action, for they will be some of the first to experience the most dangerous effects of global warming.
It is an extremely complex situation for nations to come to a consensus on what to do about these climate refugees. Although attempts have been made in UN Conferences to discuss displaced persons, there is still no specific legal protection for those displaced peoples. Nations must make security accessible for the families that have been and will be affected.
Climate migration must be embedded in discussions about climate action and citizens can make a direct impact by speaking to local representatives about climate migrants. Together, we can bring this to the attention of our elected officials, and encourage our governments to make this a priority in the climate action discussion.