EJF’s report, A Nation under Threat, released Monday, reveals it is exactly this kind of forced migration that is now emerging on a massive global scale, with millions mainly among our planet’s poorest and most vulnerable being forced to move. These are the new refugees, “climate refugees” driven from their homes by changes in climate, the primary result of the developed world’s inability or refusal to understand the impacts of its development on the global environment and on others far less fortunate.
Climate change is amplifying the intensity of extreme weather events. Its impacts are now being seen in both poorer and developed countries. This year, Hurricane Sandy rendered more than 40,000 people homeless in New York City alone and just last week over 310,000 people lost their homes to Typhoon Bopha in the Philippines. Last year weather-related disasters, mainly floods and storms, displaced 13.8 million people. That’s more than the total number of residents in Illinois. Now, consider for a moment that the entire population of Illinois lost everything: their land, their homes, their possessions, their livelihoods. Where would those people go? To what would they be entitled and where?
These people forced from their homes by environmental insecurity are often referred to as “climate refugees” and “environmental refugees”. However, these terms are neither defined nor recognized by international law. Despite their numbers, these people have neither the recognition nor protections of refugees under international legal definitions and yet they have been forced to migrate because of climate related problems. They are refugees.
Rising temperatures, erratic rainfall, increased drought and desertification and more intense flooding and storms have a real human impact. There are large parts of the world where life is getting harder: faced with either too much water and floods, or too little water and nothing to drink, or occasionally both. Experiencing food insecurity, declining health and even the direct threats to their lives from extreme conditions or the conflicts that are blossoming in climate chaos – witness the violence of Darfur or slow tragedy being played out in the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya where nearly half a million people barely survive. Faced with drought, the loss of their precious livestock and famine these people had no choice but to move.
As world leaders have just concluded another round of climate negotiations in Doha and have failed to build protection for the most vulnerable it is clear we are not doing enough. Although the negotiations have resulted in a formal acknowledgement from the USA and other developed nations that there will be a bill to pay for the havoc that will come from climate change and they will have to pick up at least some of tab, crucially, the talks have not shown the political leadership and ambition we need. They have failed to create a path from recognizing the causes and costs of climate change to delivering the funds and the action to solve these.
We now need our leaders to actually lead and fulfill the responsibilities they accepted on taking political office and act - now. We need to remember that today climate change has become one of the major challenges to the basic human rights to life, food, health, water, housing and self-determination. And why we must remember it is so important that the international community acts to recognize, support and protect the world’s growing number of climate refugees.
Trent is the executive director of the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF).