Climate Refugees

Refugees are people who have nowhere to go. Traditionally, refugees have been displaced due to war or political persecution. Now a new type of refugee is being proposed: Environmental refugees, those who are displaced from their homes by environmental changes. Although no organization yet recognizes them, they may already number 25 million. A large subcategory of environmental refugees is climate refugees—people who are displaced by increases in extreme weather events, sea level rise, or any other effect of climate change.

Climate refugees are beginning to leave the small, inhabited islands of the southwestern Pacific Ocean. Many of these islands are low-lying coral atolls that may rise only a few feet above sea level. Rising seas and storm surges damage homes and reduce the atoll residents' ability to support themselves. According to the Red Cross in 2005, the number of people in the southwestern Pacific that have been affected by weather-related disasters has increased 65 times in the past 30 years. Many of these people have already become, or soon will become, climate refugees.

Residents of the Carteret Islands are the first refugees being driven from their homes by rising seas. These six tiny horseshoe-shaped coral atolls are part of Papua New Guinea. The nearly 1,000 inhabitants have been trying to save their home for 20 years by planting mangroves and building seawalls. Despite their efforts, high tides and storm surges wash over the island, destroying homes and coconut palms and contaminating crops and freshwater supplies. Waves have broken off small pieces of the coral atolls. Scientists predict that the islands will be totally submerged by 2015. In 2005, the Papua New Guinea government decided to move 10 families at a time to a new, larger island home on Bougainville, a four-hour boat trip away.

The Carteret Islanders are a small group. Other locations, with bigger populations, could create many more climate refugees, which makes for additional problems. Densely populated Indonesia could lose about 2,000 islands by 2030. Extremely remote Tuvalu, the world's second smallest nation (after Vatican City), with only 11,600 residents, is already losing people. Many of the residents of Tuvalu's nine islands have already left their homes for New Zealand, where they try to maintain their unique culture while working and living among the New Zealanders. Although for many years Tuvaluans have left their islands because of overcrowding or in search of better jobs, island flooding due to climate change is increasingly cited as a motivation for evacuation.

Some Tuvaluans are fighting to protect their island homes. The islanders have even sent an ambassador to the United Nations to tell the world of their plight. Tuvaluan ambassador Enele Sopoaga told writer Alexandra Berzon, for a 2006 article, "Tuvalu is Drowning," in the online magazine Salon, "Tuvaluans want to live in their own islands forever. To relocate is a shortsighted solution, an irresponsible solution. We're not dealing here with Tuvalu only. All of the low-lying island coastal areas are going to be affected."

Island nation residents are not the only ones who have to worry about becoming climate refugees. Enormous numbers of climate refugees will come from developing nations, too. Climate change could create 250 million refugees in China, 150 million in India, and 120 million in Bangladesh, for example. As climate refugees are displaced in ever-increasing numbers, the question of what to do with them will be more crucial. New Zealand has agreed to take 75 Tuvaluans per year on a special permit, and others have gone to Australia or other

Children waiting out a flood at their home on Tuvalu. (© Gary Braasch, from the book Earth Under Fire: How Global Warming Is Changing the World, University of California Press, 2007)

island nations. But what happens when the numbers of climate refugees seeking asylum rises into the millions? Indeed, the third Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report in 2001 states there may be 150 million environmental refugees by 2050.

Some people say that the nations most responsible for climate change should take most of the refugees, and suggest that the obligations should be proportional to the nation's impact. In other words, the United States, which produced around 30% of the CO2 emissions during the twentieth century, would take about 30% of climate refugees, which would be as many as 250,000 to 750,000 people a year. Andrew Simms, head of the climate change program at the New Economics Foundation, wrote in the Guardian in 2003 that the advantage to this strategy would be that "Creating new legal obligations to accept environmental refugees would help ensure that industrialized countries accept the consequences of their choices."

But the United States will not just need to take on foreign refugees—it will already have many of its own. Sea level rise will eventually make much of the Gulf of Mexico and South Florida coasts, as well as many coastal cities, uninhabitable. Eventually, as many as 50 million people could be flooded out. The New Orleans residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina could be considered to be climate refugees, although they are not the nation's first: the Dust Bowl of the mid- to late-1930s, which created over 500,000 refugees, was partly caused by a massive drought.

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