‘Climate Refugees’ Unrecognized Legally, Yet Real
As regions dry up, hurricane seasons expand, and wildfires burn, the importance of a fair and just plan for creating inviting, compassionate communities for climate refugees raises important questions. People need to be able to leave areas that are becoming unlivable because of a changing environment, however, climate refugee is not a legal classification of refugee.
Refugee status is reserved for people fleeing violence and persecution. People displaced by climate change usually stay in their country and return to their land once the danger has passed. This makes them less visible in statistics. The international community needs to prepare for refugees fleeing the power of the winds, the sun, the tides, and poor human planning. The numbers of displaced will increase rapidly in coming years if the recent hurricane seasons are an indicator.
National borders and xenophobia are obstacles to an effective, humane plan for migrating the various populations of the world into stable ecosystems. People will need to be abandon some low-lying and drought-plagued lands . The rich will need to get used to their golf-courses and high-rises housing the displaced. The whole concept of private ownership of land is going to need to be reconsidered. There are more than seven billion people but wealth, power, and exceptional healthcare reach a minority of the species. Disparities in standards of living across the world will help determine who is worst-affected by climate change but the risk is pervasive and undpredictable. Nobody’s safety is guaranteed.
The First American Climate Refugees Are Here
America is widely vulnerable to climate catastrophe. Earthquakes in fracking country, the Yellowstone Supervolcano’s increased activity, receding coastlines, and the current toasty-October so many of us are currently enjoying all have the potential to upend the consumerist lifestyles. The American poor are finding, and will become much better-acquainted with, their government’s inability to treat them as constituents in need of protection and representation. The American poor are a buffet for the highest bidder. This is best illustrated by a controversy where a high-profile Democratic Party spokesperson, Sen. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL), attempted to gut regulations on predatory lending that would impact her donors in the financial industry. Despite the gaudy luxury of the USA the majority of the country would have no protection if a volcano, earthquake, or tsunami shook the country and shut down the government.
Very few people are actually insulated from systemic catastrophe. You should care about this issue because we are all one bad day away from needing to flee our homes briefly or forever. I mean, you should care about this issue because there are billions of people at risk, but personal risk makes things more real.
Climate Refugee Definitions & Numbers
In 2008 the International Organization for Migration defined the term ‘environmental migrants’ as: “…Persons or groups of persons who, predominantly for reasons of sudden or progressive change in the environment that adversely affects their lives or living conditions, are obliged to leave their habitual homes, or choose to do so, either temporarily or permanently, and who move either within their country or abroad.”
Around 22 million people were displaced by climate change yearly according to 2008 estimates from the United Nations. These are people whose lands burned, whose rivers flooded, and whose cities collapsed as the ground shook. They left their homes in fear. Some of them returned, others sought a new place to live. These numbers are set to increase. A recent study from Cornell predicted that if humanity fails to react to climate change then there will be two billion extra people displaced by 2100.
This number does not account for the fact that environmental disasters can lead to government instability and war. Before Syria erupted in a Civil War it experienced a half-decade of drought which some attribute to its social fractures.
The first step that future climate refugees need us to take is to give the term a legal definition and legal protection. The group Environmental Justice Foundation have set up a campaign to help you advocate for this. Their postcard campaign asks participants to send a postcard to the UN calling for “recognition and protection for climate refugees.” They also suggest changing your behavior to reduce energy consumption, and talking to your friends about the climate refugee issue.
As the impacts of climate change accelerate humans will become more vulnerable from every angle. Our food will become less secure, our parasites will live longer as winters become shorter, diseases will spread, and the lands we live on will become less hospitable. A holistic response to the coming crisis would be an excellent opportunity to flatten out a social hierarchy that has fostered drastic inequality. It could also be an opportunity for the oligarchs to secure their domination of society. If the public acts fast to implement a fair plan we could save a whole lot of people pain and strike the smiles from the self-styled rulers at the top of our social pyramid.