Climate refugees

Bangladesh-climate_refugeeIs the current global refugee crisis going to be a picnic when compared with climate refugees?  At the moment in the UK general election some surveys have immigration as the number 1 issue. At the same time thousands of boat people are trying to get across the Mediterranean and thousands have drowned doing so due to the inhumanity of human trafficking.  Everyday being news reports of fresh human tragedy.  As of 2013 the UNHCR says there were 51 million displaced persons worldwide due to persecution, war etc.  This is the largest number since the second world war.

The first thing to say (contrary to belief) is most of these people don’t travel too far.  33 million of these displaced people are displaced in their own country (Syria for example).  Then a number of others also don’t go too far, being in the neighbouring countries.  Again to use Syria as an example 2 million Syrians are in Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon.  The problem that is overwhelming Europe is actually the tip of the iceberg and most refugees are a burden on equally poor neighbours.  There are of course economic migrants from central America into the US and from Asia/Africa into the UK.  The question is will man made climate change lead to an even worse problem of climate refugees?

Wild weather and rising sea levels could not only affect agriculture, but also cities, many of which are by the sea.  Countries  such as Yemen are running out of water (and oil).  Potentially the number of people who end up as climate refugees could be much larger than the current 51 million currently displaced by war and that well known liberal/environmental organisation, the US military, is concerned that climate change will lead to more conflict.   Part of the problem is we don’t know how many there are likely to be, but currently the UNHCR reckons there are 22 million environmental refugees already.  The Nansen Initiative states there have been 1.6 billion people been displaced by natural disasters since 2000.

It seems likely that at first like today most people would try to move to other parts of their country and neighbouring countries like to today.  Nevertheless with climate change disproportionately affecting the poorest countries first and with climate change having no borders it seems likely that the refugee problem is going to get far far worse.  Future estimates are hard to come by but one is about 350m/year by 2050.   The UNHCR seem reluctant to give figures, but see this as a very worrying problem.

The question is what to do about all this?  The first thing to recognise is that we should try to stop the problem at source.  We need a binding treaty in Paris to limit temperature rises to 2 degrees C, preferably less.  However it does seem we are stuck with a certain degree of warming and hence climate chaos.  The second strategy is that of mitigation.  The rich countries are supposed to be setting up a climate fund to help with this regard, but most pledges have not been honoured so far (the UK being an exception).  There is of course only so much mitigation that you can do against say sea level rise.  If your country shrinks or disappears (as island nations in the Indian and Pacific Oceans seem likely to do) then mitigation will be of limited use.  The UNHCR has a policy of keeping climate refugees as much as possible in their counties of origin.  This may not be possible.  The next solution is of course migration.  In my view we have a duty to let people in, since we have caused the problem and they have not.  But we need to have a discussion starting now about how many under what circumstances.  There is one final issue, in 2050 we will have (effectively) run out of oil, travel will be much more expensive and limited.  This works both ways both with migration one way and aid the other.


Picture from wikimedia commons.

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