by Judith Curry
This post is motivated by the article in the Asian Correspondent by Gavin Atkins entitled “What happened to the climate refugees?”
The Climate Refugee Story
The story of climate refugees is becoming the “human face” of climate change.
A book entitled “Climate Refugees” by Collectif Argos, is summarized by amazon.com:
“People of the Arctic, the Sundarbans, the Maldives, the Longbaoshan, the Louisiana Gulf Coast, Tuvalu, Lake Chad, and the Himalayas comprise the nine communities Collectif Argos visited with pen and camera to produce, in 2007, the sad and haunting Climate Refugees, recently translated and published in English. While the global pool of climate literature is crowded and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to advance the climate story, this book does so by documenting firsthand the day-to-day experience of people being challenged by weather conditions so extreme, they are simply forced to quit, pull up roots, and move to higher ground. Their remote and rugged communities, all struggling to adapt to chaos, are canaries in the global mine of climate change. And their stories are moral barometers for the rest of the world.”
There is a 2010 documentary film entitled “Climate Refugees,” which received a nomination for an Academy Award (trailer here), with appearances by climate luminaries such as Al Gore, Steve Schneider, Yvo de Boer and Paul Ehrlich, and politicians including Barack Obama, Newt Gingrich and Desmond Tutu.
This film is about what happens when an over populated world with lack of resources and a changing climate all collide with each other. An intersection of humanity that many are calling the greatest challenge mankind will ever face. If an “Inconvenient Truth” was about what causes climate change, this film is about what are the effects of climate change on our civilization.
A one stop shop for info and links on climate refugees is at glogov.org
What is a climate refugee?
As per the Wikipedia:
The Global Governance Project defines climate refugees as people who have to leave their habitats, immediately or in the near future, because of sudden or gradual alterations in their natural environment related to at least one of three impacts of climate change: sea-level rise, extreme weather events, and drought and water scarcity.
Some consider climate refugees to be a subcategory of environmental refugees. Some causes for environmental migration are increased droughts, desertification, sea level rise, and disruption of seasonal weather patterns such as monsoons. A statistically significant correlation between migration and environmental degradation including climate change was shown by Afifi and Warner (2007), controlling for the already established major drivers of migration.
Regions where climate migration is described as occurring are Africa, Bangladesh, Carteret Islands (Papua New Guinea) and Shishmaref (Alaska).
The Wikipedia article has a section entitled “Conceptual problems and criticism”:
[T]here is no evidence that the concept can be used to achieve generalisable truths. In brief, this is because the degree to which any given environmental factor is meaningful at the societal level – let alone to any specific aspect of human activity, such as migration – is entirely conditional on socio-economic and political contingencies. In other words, it is impossible to isolate a single environmental factor as an independent variable from which to deduce its impact on a particular (or general) form of social outcome in any way that will be generalisably useful; the relationship will be different depending on circumstance.
Legal status of climate refugees
The international legal status of climate refugees is clarified in this article from Australia:
“There’s no such thing as a climate or an environmental refugee in international or domestic law,” says David Corlett, author of Stormy Weather: the Challenge of Climate Change and Displacement and Swinburne University of Technology adjunct research fellow. “It’s a non-existent category that conveys no rights.”
Under the 1951 Refugee Convention, a refugee is a person with a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”. Environmental factors are largely irrelevant.
But the Convention was established in the aftermath of World War II, nearly 60 years ago. Surely it’s time for a re-draft? That’s unlikely to happen, says Corlett. If a debate were opened up about the meaning of “refugee”, signatory states would probably try to restrict the definition rather than expand it.
That would leave asylum seekers – including those displaced by climate change – in an even more precarious position. Refugee advocates are also opposed to tinkering with the current definition. “I don’t think it’s helpful to bring any more people into the Convention because it’s struggling as it is,” says Pamela Curr, campaigns co-ordinator at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre in Melbourne.
Even some “climate refugees” don’t want to be included in the Convention. In 2009, Australian academics Jane McAdam and Maryanne Loughry visited the photogenically fragile Pacific island nations of Tuvalu and Kiribati, predicted to be the first affected by sea level rise. As the scholars discovered, the term “refugee” irritates locals, who see themselves as resourceful providers, not passive victims. Their solution to rising sea levels is to “secure options for labour migration to Australia and New Zealand”. “They want to be skilled migrants, rather than refugees,” explains Curr.
From the Wikipedia article:
The Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) has argued that the people who will be forced to move due to climate change currently have no adequate recognition in international law. The EJF contends that a new multilateral legal instrument is required to specifically address the needs of ‘climate refugees’ in order to confer protection to those fleeing environmental degradation and climate change. They have also asserted that additional funding is needed to enable developing countries to adapt to climate change. Sujatha Byravan and Sudhir Chella Rajan have argued for the use of the term ‘climate exiles’ and for international agreements to provide them political and legal rights, including citizenship in other countries, bearing in mind those countries’ responsibilities and capabilities.
Predictions of climate refugees
The history of such predictions is described by the Wikipedia.
There have been a number of attempts over the decades to enumerate ‘environmental migrants/ refugees’. Jodi Jacobson (1988) is cited as the first researcher to enumerate the issue, stating that there were already up to 10 million ‘Environmental Refugees’. By 1989, Mustafa Tolba, Executive Director of UNEP, was claiming that ‘as many as 50 million people could become environmental refugees’ if the world did not act to support sustainable development (Tolba 1989: 25). . . In the mid-1990s, Norman Myers became the most prominent proponent of this ‘maximalist’ school (Suhrke 1993), stating that there were 25 million environmental refugees in the mid-1990s, and claiming that this figure could double by 2010, with an upper limit of 200 million by 2050 (Myers 1997).
These claims have gained significant currency, with the most common claims being that 150-200 million people will be climate change refugees by 2050. Variations of this claim have been made in influential reports on climate change by the IPCC (Brown 2008: 11) and the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change (Stern et al. 2006: 3), as well as by NGOs . . .
Verification of the predictions
From the Wikipedia article:
More generally, Black has argued that there is ‘surprisingly little scientific evidence’ that indicates that the world is ‘filling-up with environmental refugees’. Indeed, Francois Gemenne has stated that: ‘When it comes to predictions, figures are usually based on the number of people living in regions at risk, and not on the number of people actually expected to migrate. Estimates do not account for adaptation strategies [or] different levels of vulnerability’.
The recent article in the Asian Correspondent examined the latest census data of regions expected to be experienced climate migration and found the following:
However, a very cursory look at the first available evidence seems to show that the places identified by the UNEP as most at risk of having climate refugees are not only not losing people, they are actually among the fastest growing regions in the world.
Further discussion of this article can be found at WUWT, including the UNEP’s apparent attempts to remove some of their earlier statements from their web sites.
How climate change displaces people
An article at science.howstuffworks.com describes how climate change displaces people:
Why climate refugees flee their homes is a complicated mixture of environmental degradation and desperate socioeconomic conditions. People leave their homes when their livelihoods and safety are jeopardized.
When faced with the decision to flee, most climate refugees stay within their own country or region — called short-distance migration and internal displacement. Leaving your country requires money for travel and could mean leaving family behind, whereas short-distance migration is usually relocation from a rural to urban area in search of work and resources.
The chance for return and resettlement back home is unlikely, though. In instances when an area is temporarily uninhabitable, like a hurricane, returning home may be an option. But when coastlines — or entire islands — are underwater, the possibility of going home is nonexistent. Adaptation and resilience will be the key to reducing displacement risk, both temporary and permanent, in the forms of early warning systems and flood-defense infrastructure, sustainable agriculture and drought-resistant crops, as well as other protections.
Two recent articles shed further light on this issue.
The ecologist.com has a recent article entitled:
Climate refugee ‘crisis’ will not result in mass migration – new research
Researchers dismiss ‘alarmist predictions’ about hundreds of millions of people being forced to migrate across international borders because of climate change
Climate change is more likely to lead to local and regional migration as people’s livelihoods are lost through drought, flooding or other types of environmental degradation. Research by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) in Africa and South America found most migrants were likely to move to other rural areas or local towns on a temporary basis. Seasonal movement is historically common with, for example, pastoralists in East Africa having long-developed strategies to cope with unpredictable environments. In Sub Saharan Africa, the study found, many women migrate to towns during dry seasons to work as cleaners and street traders. While in the Bolivian Andes, women are already moving for 3-6 months of the year to take llamas to pasture. . . [T]he IIED findings back up other research that suggests relocation is likely to be local with people whose livelihoods are most sensitive to the environment also tending to be the ones who do not have the means to move very far.
The study says farmers should be helped to diversify their incomes to provide a ‘safety net’ against environmental degradation. But governments often view migrants as a problem and provide little support, the study found. As a result, when people have relocated they are often returning back to their original homes due to frustration with the lack of help in adapting to a new climate and different agricultural practices. ’Policymakers need to redefine migration and see it as a valuable adaptive response to environmental risks and not as problem that needs to be tackled,’ said study author Dr Cecilia Tacoli, who said she was worried alarmist predictions would backfire and result in policies that marginalise the poorest and vulnerable groups.
Nature.com has an article entitled
Report disperses migration myths
The first global survey of human migration driven by climate change suggests that most relocation will be regional rather than international in scale. The research, published 10 June as part of a report titled In Search of Shelter, dispels a common myth that the majority of climate refugees will arrive on the doorsteps of developed nations.
“There’s been a bit of political rhetoric saying we’re going to have waves of migrants at our doorsteps, rushing into Europe and North America,” says Koko Warner, the report’s lead author and an expert on migration and climate change at United Nations University in Bonn, Germany. “What we found is that the people whose livelihoods are most sensitive to the environment also tend to be the ones who may not have the means to move very far.”
From 2007 to 2009, social scientists from six European universities conducted surveys and case studies at 23 sites on five continents where migration is already taking place and questioned 2,000 local people about their reasons for leaving or staying.
Although people often migrate briefly to escape natural disasters — such as flooding in Bangladesh’s Ganges delta — the main environmental drivers of long-term migration are those that ruin local livelihoods, finds the report. In parts of Niger, for example, drought and soil degradation can force farmers to move from village to village.
Such trends seem likely to increase. “If environment already plays a role in migration, then as climate change accelerates you can expect to see more of that,” says Rafael Reuveny of Indiana University in Bloomington. Reuveny’s latest research shows that emigration to developed countries in the 1980s and 1990s was partly driven by environmental factors such available agricultural land, as well as by war and poverty. The EACH-FOR research adds to the growing body of evidence that climate change is now starting to compete with such political and economic factors in driving migration.
JC comments: The dynamics of migration are complex, and climate and weather disasters certainly play a role. Examples of migration in the U.S. influenced by these factors include the “Okies” migration in the 1930’s dustbowl and Hurricane Katrina. In unstable parts of the world, migration associated with weather disasters and climate change can be threat multipliers. Migration is key element of climate adaptation, and further understanding of migration is important for economic stability and security. The unfounded and senseless predictions of the UNEP could very well “backfire and result in policies that marginalise the poorest and vulnerable groups. ”