When Hurricane Katrina hit, few people talked about the climate refugee crisis. Now, millions are fleeing their lives and homes and seeking refuge in America. An environmentalist and writer, Bill McKibben, has called the current refugee crisis “a global humanitarian emergency.”
Climate change is a significant driver of displacement.
The United States government has recognized the connections between migration and climate change and has established a Task Force on Displacement. It has also expanded the list of countries where climate-displaced people can apply for temporary protected status. These efforts are encouraging, but the next step is to find ways to protect climate-displaced people and provide them with the proper assistance they need to survive in a new country.
Displacement from climate change is already widespread. People who are already displaced may live in a “hot spot” for climate change, where their chances of returning home have been reduced. More than three million people have fled across national and international borders due to the growing humanitarian emergency and environmental degradation.
The World Bank study found that two-thirds underestimated the estimated number of climate-related displacements. The study also found that by 2050, high tides would flood parts of Vietnam, southern Iraq, and the Nile Delta. While this study focused on preplanned responses to environmental changes, it failed to consider the broader impact of climate change on migration.
UNHCR is addressing the issue of climate-related displacement by participating in global policy processes and raising awareness. In particular, UNHCR is collaborating with the Platform on Disaster Displacement and other key actors to protect climate-displaced people. Several steps are being taken to support the UNHCR in this endeavor. Climate-related displacement may be covered under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.
The Global Compact on Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration (UN SOM) highlights the role of climate-related disasters in human mobility. It states that displacement patterns are driven by the effects of environmental degradation on human health. Many of these conditions include drought, desertification, and rising sea levels. Unless countries address these problems, climate migrants will continue to face extreme hardship.
Cities must prepare
The growing climate refugee crisis will require cities to plan for and respond to more significant displacement flows. According to a recent study, climate change could cause 143 million climate refugees by 2050. This study focused on sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America, but a separate ProPublica study projected up to 30 million migrants in the United States by that same date. Rising sea levels and severe weather will make parts of these areas inhospitable.
The resulting urban migration will put an unprecedented strain on municipal government systems. Since cities produce 71-76% of greenhouse gases, reducing emissions will become problematic. This new reality will also dramatically impact the population of the urban areas. Many cities are already implementing disaster risk reduction strategies to address this growing migration issue, but the climate refugee crisis could overwhelm municipal planning efforts. As a result, many cities will have to create new policies responsive to migration-driven growth.
The UN Human Rights Committee has recently issued legal guidance on climate-related migration. In January 2020, the UN Human Rights Committee upheld a New Zealand court decision and recognized climate-related migration could be a legitimate asylum claim. Whether people can return home or not, the fact is that climate-related refugees are unlikely to find security through movement alone. But the question remains: How will these refugees cope in cities?
The most immediate response to the climate-related refugee crisis will improve infrastructure. Cities must prepare for climate-related displacement by strengthening infrastructure and implementing policies and actions to mitigate risks and prevent the need for displacement. As climate-related disasters become more frequent and intense, national agencies must prepare for more disaster-related displacement. These efforts must include early warning systems, evacuation procedures, and the funding necessary to rebuild and resettle in other areas.
While addressing the current migrant crisis is a significant task for cities, the Biden administration has already shown its commitment to the issue by passing an executive order on refugee resettlement in February 2021. The executive order also includes a report on the impacts of climate change on migration and the need to relocate. Based on a report by Refugees International, the official report will focus on the inevitable effects of climate change on migration and displaced persons. It also outlines mitigation efforts and migration pathways for those fleeing climate disasters.
The legal status of climate refugees
A recent ruling by the United Nations could profoundly affect the legal status of climate refugees. In 2015, a family from the Pacific island nation of Kiribati applied for asylum in New Zealand, claiming that climate change was making their island uninhabitable. After being refused, they filed a complaint with the United Nations Human Rights Committee, arguing that climate refugees are not people in immediate danger.
The UN’s climate committee recently recognized that climate refugees are a distinct class of internally displaced persons. In recognition of their status as refugees, the committee ruled that they have a right to protection under international law. While climate change is not the sole driver of migration and displacement, it has accelerated the climate crisis. The UN framework convention on climate change may be the ideal vehicle for addressing the situation of climate refugees.
In its latest report, published in the peer-reviewed journal Science, Columbia University climate scientists analyzed projections for climate change and migration. The authors concluded that global temperatures could rise by 28% by 2100, leading to an increase of 450,000 climate refugees per year in just the European Union. While there is no international agreement regarding the legal status of climate refugees or climate crisis management, recent negotiations on global compacts for migration and refugees aim to address this issue. The UN General Assembly is expected to adopt the Global Compacts this fall.
While international non-profits call on governments to implement their commitments under climate law, they have disagreed on binding measures to protect climate migrants. In the meantime, the UN’s Platform on Disaster Displacement is working with state governments to implement its recommendations. While the resolution was essentially a non-binding document, it is still crucial to take action now to protect climate migrants.
The UN Human Rights Committee aims to create new global agreements on dealing with the displaced people caused by climate change. These new agreements would help governments address the legal status of these individuals in a global context.
Aid needed for climate refugees
As a result of climate change, extreme weather events increase and force people from their homes. This, in turn, creates a climate refugee crisis and destabilizes society and economies. In the last 30 years, sea-level rise has caused the displacement of approximately 160 million people. Most of these refugees are from low-lying developing countries and small island states. In addition, the impacts of climate change are making those countries more vulnerable to other threats such as droughts and floods.
The term “refugee” is loaded with moral connotations in many cultures and religions. But climate refugees deserve strong protection, so we must create an international protocol to protect these vulnerable people. While a climate change protocol will not establish legal protection for these refugees, it will be vital to assist those who need it most. It’s also imperative that we establish legal protections to prevent further displacement.