Turning the Tide on Climate Refugees

Justin White

It came to my surprise sitting down with my family over Easter, that right there, on BBC One at 9pm on a Thursday evening, was a mention of something that had been neglected ever since the inception of the term. None other than David Attenborough was speaking about climate refugees, one of the most important issues when it comes to the current climate crisis. His words didn’t come without reservation either. He spoke the brutal truth that everyone on this planet need to come to terms with.

But who were those affected? The obvious example comes to mind - marginalised communities in the Pacific who have done next to nothing to contribute to climate change and are feeling the most exacerbated results of it. However, Attenborough didn’t stop here, moving on to the South of the United States, where the Mississippi River meets the sea just south of New Orleans. Here lies the Isle de Jean Charles, the first community to receive federal tax dollars, 48 million of them, to be relocated as climate refugees. No doubt we are already starting to see the effects of the climate crisis; however, when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez promotes action to curb communities going underwater in the Green New Deal, the GOP’s argument is simply to call it out as elitist.

Yet the the problem of climate refugees is only going to get worse, and it goes beyond drowning communities. A study published by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis this year confirms the belief that the climate crisis is a significant cause in conflict the world over. Using three sets of data, asylum applications from 157 countries during the years 2006 to 2015 from the UN High Commission for Refugees, climatic conditions in the asylum seekers’ home countries from the Standardised Precipitation-Evapotranspiration Index (which measures the amount of rainfall and therefore drought), and finally to assess conflicts the Uppsala Conflict Data Programme, Guy Abel and his research team determined for the first time scientifically there is a “causal link between climate, conflict and forced migration.” The largest and most prominent example the team found was the current conflict in Syria which started in 2011, where severe long-running droughts and water shortages caused by the climate crisis have plunged parts of the Middle East and Western Asia into civil war. However, despite the caveat that in the Global North, most nations are able to circumvent the effects of such conditions, the case is dire in Sub-Saharan Africa and South East Asia.

One may consider refugees from these regions to fall under the umbrella of refugees of conflict, which is undoubtedly true, yet at the same time this is simply because the infrastructure does not exist for the new term that is climate refugees. Only last year did the UN try to change their definition of a refugee, adopted in the 1951 Refugee Convention, to include those displaced by climatic conditions. However even this non-binding agreement was left unsigned by the United States and many EU countries, alarming when the World Bank considers up to 143 million people could be displaced by the effects of climate change by 2050. Unfortunately the United Kingdom is one of these nations as well, yet with a recently declared Climate Emergency off the back of Greta Thunberg and her influential movement of school strikes and the Extinction Rebellion protests in London this April, one can hope the political tides will turn on those communities affected by our current climate.

People and Planet petition: https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/238297?fb...


*Illustration by Paola Valentina*

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