Environmental Refugees

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Author: Leeann Sullivan
Editor: Barbara J. McNicol
Date: 2021
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 2
Content Level: (Level 4)

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Environmental Refugees

As climate change continues to alter our surroundings in new and unpredictable ways, the world is seeing a dramatic increase in the number of environmental, and specifically, climate refugees. These are forced to leave their homes because of certain environmentally related phenomena such as sea-level rise, drought, or large storm events. In fact, the current climate refugee movement may well be one of the greatest global challenges of the twenty-first century.

Some, even those who believe that relocation is necessary, argue that labeling individuals as climate refugees may be problematic. There are several reasons for this. First, the legal definition of a refugee, according to international law, is someone who must relocate because of persecution based on race, religion, or nationality. Environmental migrants are simply not accounted for in this description. The United States has adopted this definition verbatim but goes further to state that a refugee must be located outside of the United States. Clearly, this poses a problem for U.S. citizens displaced because of climate change. Second, many people who are displaced by climate-related events such as storms or droughts are eventually able to return to their former homes. Because of this, migrants themselves sometimes oppose the term “refugee” on the grounds that it carries a connotation of helplessness that is not fitting for their situations. Finally, many scholars argue that climate change alone is rarely a reason for relocation, but rather is a compounding factor of larger issues such as poverty, climate, and limited job opportunities.

Climate refugees are environmental refugees. Environmental refugees are those who are displaced by natural occurrences such as volcanic eruptions, Page 10  |  Top of Articletsunamis, or earthquakes. While the explicit cause-effect relationship between climate change and natural disasters is debated, increases in global average temperature result in increased intensity and frequency of large storm events such as hurricanes and flash floods as well as intense environmental effects such as drought and forest loss. These all put people at risk of environmental displacement.

As world leaders wrestle with how to define both climate and environmental refugees, they also debate whether the developed world has a moral and financial responsibility to assist those displaced by environmental change from economically distressed countries. Does the country they are leaving have financial responsibility, or does that fall upon the country where the refugees end up? Leaders of small-island nations experiencing rising ocean tides, such as Fiji, Kiribati, and Vanuatu, have petitioned governments for help in paying for the relocation of villages or compensation for loss of income from fishing and farming.

Developed nations such as the United States have been reluctant to take on the financial burden of small-island nations whose populations are being displaced. This may be because they have their own environmental burdens. For example, in the United States, sea-level rise is already impacting some communities in low-lying areas of Alaska and Louisiana. In the not-so-distant future, rising sea levels could begin to impact population-dense coastal cities such as New York, Miami, and Boston, with more than six million people at risk of losing homes located on or near coastal lands.

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Leeann Sullivan

Further Reading

Argos Collective. 2010. Climate Refugees. Cambridge, MA. MIT Press.

Black, Richard. 1998. Refugees, Environment and Development. Essex, UK. Addison Wesley Longman Limited.

Davenport, Coral, and Robertson, Campbell. 2016. “Resettling the First American Climate Refugees.” International New York Times. May 2, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/03/us/resettling-the-first-american-climate-refugees.html .

Pilkey, Orrin H., Pilkey-Jarvis, Linda, and Pilkey, Keith C. 2016. Retreat from a Rising Sea. New York. Columbia University Press.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX8251100016