Climate Refugees

Sari Ohsada

December, 2017


Climate change is one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century.  In 2016 approximately 24.2 million displacements were triggered by natural disasters, the majority being weather-related hazards particularly in South and East Asia.  However, locations such as Northern Canada and Alaska are also vulnerable. In these regions, several indigenous and other communities have been affected by climate-change driven erosion, flooding, and extreme storms.   

These victims are climate refugees.  They seek stability and security in domestic or foreign territory due to environmental changes that result in unlivable conditions.  However, the current official definition of "refugee" under the 1951 Geneva Convention only includes those crossing national borders, due to political, racial, or ethnic persecution, not environmental struggle.

This contributes to the lack of global preparation to provide resettlement for climate refugees, leaving them in "legal limbo," deprived of accessing the "right to have rights.”  Instead, they are able to access only short-term emergency relief efforts and thus only assisted after natural events occur rather than provided preventative measures.  With increasing climate change impacts and lack of government or legal protection, effective international action is crucial.    

Although climate refugees have received attention in the media and various policy communities, their definition is "alarmingly vague" and highly contested among experts.  Some argue that the term "refugee" is too individualistic and alludes to persecution, therefore not encompassing the majority of individuals facing diverse environmental situations. Others state that most environmentally displaced people will move domestically and that the term "refugee" may not apply to them, as it implies movement across international borders.  

Some scholars have limited their definition to only those affected by extreme weather events, sea-level rise, and water scarcity, omitting secondary climate change impacts like natural resource conflicts or tropical diseases.  Lastly, the timing of environmental changes can affect the definition, depending upon whether they are gradual or abrupt.   

Despite these issues with defining the term “climate refugee”, the field of global adaptation governance has emerged in the past decade.  This field investigates how individual countries and world institutions such as the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) can come together to establish a harmonized adaptation plan for climate change.

Effective political action can be taken by groups such as the G20 as there is enough consensus regarding the inseparable relationship between rising CO2, climate change, human livelihoods and security among many countries.  Following the July 2017 G20 Summit in Hamburg, Germany, member countries agreed to permanently add "climate mobility" to their annual agenda, showing an international move towards recognizing the displacement of climate refugees.  In addition, they agreed to have the International Organization for Migration (IOM), among others, create joint annual reports on the influence of global environmental changes on displacement and migration.  Think20, the G20 research and policy advice network, recommended the G20 prepare for large volumes of climate migrants settling and integrating in their countries.  They suggested addressing anti-immigrant sentiments, acknowledging the positive contributions of refugees, establishing a welcoming culture, and updating their definition of refugees and migration.

More localized, grass-roots based initiatives have also contributed towards solving the crisis.  Displacement Solutions (DS), a non-profit association registered in Geneva, Switzerland, has worked on the ground across affected areas, such as Thailand, Tuvalu, Kiribati, the Maldives, and Australia.  Engaging with local civil society groups, governments, and volunteers, DS is involved in field research and creates long-term resettlement sites.  Currently in Sitakund, Chittagong Division of Bangladesh, DS is providing three-room houses with all necessary facilities including a built-in solar system to support several climate-displaced families.  

In Canada, climate-resiliency NGOs are strengthening and facilitating adaptation in indigenous and rural communities, such as The Rockies Institute (TRI), an NGO from Canmore, Alberta.  Along with plans to provide climate change education and workshops for communities and local businesses, TRI has been collaborating with the Kainai First Nation in southern Alberta to develop a climate change adaptation plan designed and implemented by locals and then sharing that knowledge with the Blackfoot Confederacy.  These measures prevents people from becoming climate refugees.

Looking at the bigger picture, this issue is rooted in ecological sustainability and the relationship between nature and corporate society.  The best way to lessen impacts on climate refugees is to reduce our consumption of fossil fuels and limit the natural disasters that cause displacements in the first place. This involves overcoming practical difficulties and changing our fundamental values, such as consuming less and using sustainable transportation.  Regardless of where it occurs, human activities impacting our environment affect the social, political, and economic security of everyone everywhere.  Pushing for large institutions, governments, and other powerful bodies to recognize and respond to climate refugees is one thing, but it is another to prepare for and to take responsibility for our daily activities and reduce our CO2 emissions.  Not only do climate change disasters and their consequences impact those on the other side of the world, but they have the power to affect our world as well.