Droughts, floods and hurricanes have always forced people to leave an area in search of safer homes, but as our climate heats and changes, it is expected that such disasters will worsen in both intensity and regularity, meaning vast numbers of people could be displaced.
It is not possible to say with any certainty how many climate refugees there are now or how many there will be in the future. However, we do know that 24.2 million people – equivalent to the whole population of Taiwan1 – were displaced by disasters in 2016, with most of those being due to weather events, and storms in particular.2 The regions most badly affected were South and East Asia, while China, India and the Philippines had the highest absolute numbers displaced.
The vulnerable made homeless
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, small island states suffer disproportionately.3 According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, low- and lower middle-income countries tend to be the worst affected – places where there are ‘high levels of socio-economic vulnerability’ and less capacity to cope.4
In short, it is those who are already most vulnerable that climate change will most affect. And there is little legal recourse or help. People who flee their own countries because they have a well-founded fear of being persecuted because of their race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, are afforded some legal protection. Those who flee because their home is under water through no fault of their own are not.5
Islands under water
The central Pacific nation of Kiribati consists of 33 islands, with an average elevation of less than six feet. Here, the sea continues to rise. ‘The results of sea level rise and increasing storm surge threaten the very existence and livelihoods of large segments of the population,’ its government told the United Nations.6 With governments around the world failing to meet their targets for greenhouse gas reduction, the Kiribati government has been forced to take pre-emptive action. It has bought eight square miles on the Fijian island of Vanua Levu so it could, if needed, relocate the entire population.7 But while such a move could save lives, would it preserve the nation and its sense of nationhood? No one knows, because never before has the land that forms a whole country simply disappeared. So far, the Kiribati islanders remain at home, but Papua New Guinea has already had to start relocating the population of the Carteret Islands to Bougainville Island, though not everyone adapted to their new ‘home’ and some have already returned.8
Wealthy nations driving the destruction
In wealthier countries located in relatively-stable climates, it can be easy to forget the seriousness of climate change, as we enjoy an unseasonably warm spring day, or marvel at flowers and butterflies appearing earlier each year. It is easy to forget, too, that the same changes are wreaking havoc elsewhere in the world, and that those changes are being driven in large part by our own consumption of fossil fuels and, crucially, by the food we choose to eat. We drive when we could walk, turn heating on instead of pulling on a jumper, use air conditioning when it is not really needed, and eat animal products instead of plants.
It is now accepted that our consumption of meat, milk and eggs is a key driver of climate change.9 Not only does farming animals and turning them into meat create a lot of climate-changing emissions, but when we cut down the forests that absorb carbon – in order to create even more grazing land, or to create space to grow crops to feed farmed animals – we exacerbate the problem. When the trees fall, carbon that was stored within them is released into the already-warming atmosphere.
The choices we make each day are important to the lives of those beyond our own boundaries. And what we choose to eat can be a humanitarian act.
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- Juvina Lai ‘Taiwan records lowest population growth rate since record keeping began,’ Taiwan News, 28 Jan 2018 [https://www.taiwannews.com.tw/en/news/3351107]
- Internal Displacement Monitoring centre [http://www.internal-displacement.org/global-report/grid2017/]
- Joanna Apap, ‘The concept of “climate refugee”’, The European Parliamentary Research Service, Feb 2019 [http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/BRIE/2018/621893/EPRS_BRI(2018)621893_EN.pdf]
- Joshua Keating, ‘The sinking state’, The Washington Post, 26 Jul 2018 [https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/posteverything/wp/2018/07/26/feature/this-is-what-happens-when-climate-change-forces-an-entire-country-to-seek-higher-ground/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.348423f1528a
- Darren James, ‘Lost at sea: the race against time to save the Carteret Islands from climate change,’ ABC News, 3 Aug 2018 [https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-08-04/the-race-against-time-to-save-the-carteret-islanders/10066958]
- Sarah Gibbens, ‘Eating meat has “dire” consequences for the planet, says report’, National Geographic, 16 Jan 2019 [https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2019/01/commission-report-great-food-transformation-plant-diet-climate-change/]