What are climate refugees?

Somali refugees displaced from their homes by floods cross a swollen river in Kenya. See more global warming pictures.
Brendan Bannon/AFP/Getty Images

­If all the ice in Greenland were to melt, the sea­ l­evel would rise by about 21 feet (6.5 meters), and th­at water would submerge 80 percent of the cities around the world [source: The Centre for Research on Globalization]. Rising temperatures, melting arctic ice, rising sea levels, drought, desertification and other catastrophic effects of global warming are not examples of future troubles but are a reality today. Climate change isn't just about the environment, though; its effects touch every part of our lives, from the stability of our governments and economies to our health and where we live.

­Where would you go if, say, a flood devastated the city you live in? Millions of people­ around the world have been forced to answer this question, and extreme weather disasters and deteriorating ecological conditions will force nearly a billion more to face the same question in the next 50 years [source: The Guardian]. These people are climate refugees, also known by dozens of other names, including environmental refugees, eco-migrants, environmental migrants and environmental displacees. Recently, climate refugees who leave their home but stay in their own country have been called internally displaced persons (IDPs) who experience environmentally induced population movements (EIPMs).

It's hard to pin down the first reference to climate refugees. In 1958, they were called "primitive migrants." The modern-day "refugee" term is attributed to the later 1970s and Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute, a coinage that's disputed by many academics who accredit the term to a 1985 United Nations report by Essam El-Hinnawi. And to complicate things further, there's no clear definition with which to designate a person as a climate refugee, nor is there consensus that these "refugees" are refugees at all.

Under the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention, a refugee is a person who "owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country" [source: Reuters]. Climate refugees do not legally fall under this status.

­In the mid-1980s, El-Hinnawi defined environmental refugees as "people who have been forced to leave their traditional habitat, temporarily or permanently, because of a marked environmental disruption (natural and/or triggered by people) that jeopardized their existence and/or seriously affected the quality of their life" [source: Worldwatch Institute]. This working definition has been the baseline for current debate. Without a method of classification there's no good way to track how many people have been affected, although the International Federation of Red Cross estimates 25 to 50 million people are climate refugees today [source: Center for American Progress].

How Climate Change Displaces People

Earthquake victims from the devastated village of Gantar, Pakistan arrive in a temporary camp farther south.
Earthquake victims from the devastated village of Gantar, Pakistan arrive in a temporary camp farther south.
Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

­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. What effects of climate change put them in jeopardy? Climate change triggers, among other problems, desertification and drought, deforestation, land degradation, rising sea levels, floods, more frequent and more extreme storms, earthquakes, volcanoes and famine.

Through observation and modeling, experts predict the hardest hit populations will likely be in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Small Island States, an alliance of low-lying coastal countries around the world. The poorest populations are at risk because they often live in disaster-prone places such as steep hillsides, coasts or low-lying floodplains. It's estimated that nearly 100 million people live in regions that are below sea level [source: Inter Press Service]. A 1-meter (3.3-foot) rise in sea level, which is estimated by 2050, would plunge 3 million hectares (30 billion square meters) of Bangladesh underwater and displace 15 to 20 million people [source: Center for American Progress]. But there's no need to wait 40 or 50 years to see the effects of changing sea levels -- rising waters have already forced the residents of some Small Island States to relocate, and it's likely that the Carteret Islands, for example, will be submerged by 2015.

Climate change does not impact all people and all parts of the world in the same way. While floods ravage some areas, deserts are spreading in others. Desertification and depleted resources, including shortages of water and fertile land, are long-term consequences of global warming. They generate poverty and often incite conflicts, political crises and, in turn, population displacement. In its most recent report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that by 2080, 1.1 to 3.2 billion people will experience water scarcity, 200 to 600 million hunger and 2 to 7 million a year coastal flooding [source: The Guardian].

Development and energy projects such as dams and roads also contribute indirectly to the problem; in the coming years, 250 million people could be displaced permanently by drought, flooding and intense storms, while 645 million will be forced out of their homes due to development projects [source: The Guardian].


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 inhabitable, 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.

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