THEY'VE BEEN CALLED ENVIROGEES, ENVIRONMENTAL MIGRANTS, AND CLIMATE REFUGEES. They sound like fancy terms, but for the people they describe, it comes down to one thing: These people are forced to leave their homes and look for new ones, all because of the changes in weather.
"Refugee" usually describes someone who is forced to flee from his or her own country and seek safety somewhere else because of political issues such as war or genocide, religion, or race. But a climate refugee is someone who is forced to leave home because of sudden or long-term changes to their environment created by climate change. These changes include droughts, flooding from excessive rain, rising sea levels, desertification, and changes in the normal weather patterns, such as more frequent extreme weather events like hurricanes and monsoons. These changes can drastically affect a family's ability to grow food, access clean water, and make a sustainable living, forcing them to flee to areas where they might have a better chance of survival.
Many climate scientists are predicting a rise in global temperatures and higher sea levels that will continue over the next 100 years. If that is true, the problem of climate refugees will only become bigger. According to the International Red Cross and Red Crescent health organizations, more people are now forced to leave their homes because of environmental disasters than because of war. And more than half of the world's refugees could actually be classified as environmental refugees. By 2050, there could be as many as 150 million environmental refugees.
Many places in the world have already seen changes that are forcing people to leave their countries and become refugees. Many people who live on islands in the Pacific have seen their crops and gardens washed away or the soil contaminated by the salt of rising seawater levels. In addition, they are no longer catching as many fish as they used to because rising ocean temperatures are bleaching coral reefs and depleting the fish population. These islands also experience water shortages during droughts or sudden torrents of rain during tropical storms due to changing rainfall patterns.
In other parts of the world there is not enough water due to changing weather patterns. Because of the years of drought affecting millions of people in Africa, the group Save the Children estimates that every day, 800 children cross the border into Kenya from Somalia. Children and adults in Somalia are suffering from malnutrition because crops have failed and livestock are dying. The United Nations has even called the current Somali drought the worst humanitarian disaster in the world. And yet Kenya cannot handle the number of climate refugees streaming in from Somalia. Refugee camps are overflowing and there is a desperate need for food and other supplies.
EVEN IN THE UNITED STATES, the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005 resulted in many people losing their homes, their businesses, and their jobs. As a result, many people were evacuated to other parts of the country, and many of them settled in those places permanently. With no jobs or homes available to them in their own city, they became climate refugees within their own country because of the storm.
Climate refugees are not only leaving a desperate situation, but they also are creating problems in the places where they go. Other countries often can't handle the numbers of refugees who arrive there. For example, 1,500 Somali refugees a day arrive in Kenya, overwhelming the camps. Other countries, such as Australia and New Zealand, have had to put a limit on the number of climate refugees from the Pacific Islands that they can accept. As more and more parts of the world begin to suffer from environmental catastrophes, a bigger gulf between the parts of the world that are unaffected and the areas where people can no longer survive grows. And refugees will still arrive illegally in many places, hiding in trucks, trains, boats, and aircraft, trying to find a place where they can get food and water.
WHAT CAN WE DO ABOUT CLIMATE REFUGEES? For those who have been forced to flee because of climate change, it might be impossible for them to ever go home. There is widespread agreement that the lag time for response to any reduction in the emissions from burning gas and off is 100 years or more, so current refugees won't be going home, but perhaps their future generations may. However, science is working on methods that may allow crops to grow despite our changing environment. Countries that are less affected by climate and weather disasters could provide more aid (both money and supplies) to countries where there are people suffering from environmental catastrophes. Unfortunately, it's a problem that's only going to grow in the years to come, and now is the best time for people--and especially young people--to start thinking about the world as a global community, where everyone depends on and helps everyone else. If we think of ourselves as a world without borders, then climate refugees will no longer be refugees. They'll just be neighbors in need.
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