Global warming has been wounding our Earth for decades, but now a new prospect presents itself: climate refugees. In recent years, climate-induced migration has surged. Food insecurity, sea level rise, drought, poverty, and conflict, all exacerbated by climate change, have begun to force millions out of their homelands. The World Bank predicts that by 2050 there will be 200 million climate refugees. In other words, a populace equivalent to that of the Roman Empire at its peak will be forced to flee their homes and trek through hostile territories in search of a new one. Humanity has reached a defining moment in addressing the problem of climate refugees. The world needs a plan, and it needs one now.
The term “climate refugees” is defined as the mass movement of people who are forced to leave their countries of origin due to climate change. This includes the 40.5 million people displaced by climate-driven disasters in 2020 alone, according to IDMC’s Global Report on Internal Displacement. The disasters witnessed in 2020 reached an extreme never seen before. The Australian wildfires between 2019 and 2020 burned 46 million acres (roughly the same area as the city of Syria) of forests and over 3,500 homes and buildings. Cyclone Amphan in India and Bangladesh damaged over 15,000 homes and displaced 2.4 million climate refugees. Typhoon Vamco in the Philippines sent around 180,000 people running for safety in November 2020, and a little over a year later Typhoon Rai in the same country displaced 400,000 more people. In addition to the increasing pressure of climate refugees, climate-induced disasters cause a chain reaction of adverse effects from food shortages to socioeconomic troubles. This climate crisis has clearly become a humanitarian crisis.
As climate change worsens, countries face the increasing pressure of climate refugees, beginning with extremely vulnerable South Asia, where nearly a fourth of the global population lives. According to the World Economic Forum, up to 2,000 migrants arrive in the Bangladesh capital every day. This megacity has neither the infrastructure nor the sustainability to cope with the influx. Landlocked states in South Asia face the threat of heat waves, droughts, and dense populations. Coastal states face the threat of rising sea levels and floods. According to reports by NASA, at this rate of global warming, 80% of the Maldives will become uninhabitable by 2050. “Our islands are slowly being inundated by the sea, one by one,” Ibrahim Mohamed, President of the Maldives, stated at the UN Climate Change Conference in 2021. The minister of environment in the Maldives, Aminath Shauna, told ABC news, “Are you willing to take the Maldives as climate refugees? I think that’s a conversation that needs to happen.” The climate migration crisis has unquestionably already begun and it is hitting South Asia hard.
Unfortunately, those least responsible for climate change will suffer the most from its consequences. Poorer and more vulnerable countries not only face the effects of global warming, but also the challenges of coping with the damage it brings. In South Asia, natural-disaster management lacks funding and resources to adequately respond to immediate crisis needs. In the presence of climate-induced natural disasters, thousands to millions are left homeless, moved to mud-walled huts and dilapidated shacks, or forced to migrate. In “Protecting Climate Refugees is Crucial for the Future,” Suong Vong argues that wealthy and industrialized countries most responsible for climate change have a moral obligation and an ethical responsibility to protect climate refugees.
The World Bank states that in Southeast Asia, over eight million people have migrated to the Middle East, Europe, and North America, and in Africa, millions more have moved towards the coasts. Climate refugees have led mass movements into Europe and the United States, seeking relief in big cities. According to a New York Times article by Abrahm Lustgarten, the largest number of climate refugees migrate towards the United States; by 2050, 1.5 million migrants will arrive in the United States each year. Regions like South Asia will continue to grow more vulnerable and its citizens will more desperately seek refuge. Climate change will inevitably cause a mass, international migration of climate refugees. How must less vulnerable and most responsible countries, like the United States, take action?
First, the problem of climate refugees and a clear definition of the term must be internationally recognized. After World War II, the United Nations established organizations for the protection of refugees. Today, over 10 million refugees are protected under the global organization, United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). However, the definition of a refugee does not yet include climate refugees or migrants fleeing from environmental effects. As of the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), the UNHCR still does not endorse the term. The lack of attention designated to climate refugees is an ignorance that will prove to be disastrous in the near future. As the number of climate refugees rise, it will become increasingly impossible for the international community to ignore this crisis.
Second, safe passages and thought-out reaction plans must be established for refugees to seek protection in new countries. The urgency of this matter is dismissed by the international community. The United States needs to work with vulnerable nations like the Maldives to create a long-term solution together. The International Organization for Migration has worked with countries in South Asia to create a framework product called “Assessing the Climate Change Environmental Degradation and Migration Nexus in South Asia.” However, no substantial link between the international community and those most affected has been made. Effective collaboration and planning will help assimilate refugees into host countries and reduce the chaos and urgency seen at borders in the present day.
Third, wealthy nations must reallocate funds to refugees. Often, wealthy countries focus on macro-lending to help with natural disasters or conflicts that cause migration. Macro-lending lends large sums of funds towards infrastructure and is likely connected to corruption over efficacy. Although flawed, foreign aid directed towards sustainable causes like micro-lending, entrepreneurship, and resettling migrants can immensely help the prospect of climate refugees.
The future’s course ultimately comes down to policy, leadership, and will. Nations around the world have imposed walls to set boundaries and deter migrants. Walls, like those in the United States, will not just keep others out, but will also close themselves in. In 2018, the United States refused to sign a global migration treaty, an agreement that recognized climate as a cause for displacement. The United States has done little to accommodate the future prospect of climate refugees, yet their international response is crucial in fighting this crisis.
The climate alarm has been sounding for decades, but now more than ever, humanity is at a great risk of reaching the point of no return. Nothing is more dangerous than believing something as frail as a wall can shield the United States against the prospect of future climate refugees. The international community must act immediately: define the term and the problem, establish laid-out plans with home countries, and identify funding streams. Climate change could sink countries off the face of the earth if humanity chooses to turn a blind eye. This sincere ignorance will hurt those most vulnerable first before coming back to hurt those most responsible.
Ellis-Petersen, Hannah, and Rebecca Ratcliffe. “Super-Cyclone Amphan Hits Coast of India and Bangladesh.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 20 May 2020, www.theguardian.com/world/2020/may/20/super-cyclone-amphan-evacuations-in-india-and-bangladesh-slowed-by-virus.
“How Is Our Climate Changing?” East Riding of Yorkshire Council, www.eastriding.gov.uk/environment/sustainable-environment/climate-change/how-is-our-climate-changing/#:~:text=Globally%2C%20climate%20change%20will%20mean,intense%20heatwave%20and%20flooding%20events.
Lustgarten, Abrahm. “The Great Climate Migration Has Begun.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 23 July 2020, www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/07/23/magazine/climate-migration.html.
Manzo, Daniel, et al. “Facing Dire Sea Level Rise Threat, Maldives Turns to Climate Change Solutions to Survive.” ABC News, ABC News Network, 3 Nov. 2021, 8:37, abcnews.go.com/International/facing-dire-sea-level-rise-threat-maldives-turns/story?id=80929487#:~:text=At%20the%20current%20rate%20of,the%20Maldives%2C%20told%20the%20U.N.
Patel, Sheela. “Climate Migrants: When Your House Is No Longer Home.” World Economic Forum, World Economic Forum, 15 Nov. 2020, www.weforum.org/agenda/2021/11/climate-migrants-when-your-house-is-no-longer-home/.
Sengupta, Somini, and Nadja Popovich. “Global Warming in South Asia: 800 Million at Risk.” The New York Times. June 28, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/06/28/climate/india-pakistan-warming-hotspots.html
Vong, Suong 2016 Diplomacy & Diversity. “D&D 16 – Protecting Climate Refugees Is Crucial for the Future.” Humanity in Action, 7 Aug. 2019, www.humanityinaction.org/knowledge_detail/protecting-climate-refugees-is-crucial-for-the-future/.
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