People who have been forced to leave their homes due to the effects of climate change are called climate refugees. Climate change is a term used to describe disruptions to Earth’s weather systems that have occurred as a result of human activities. Since the start of the Second Industrial Revolution in 1880, Earth’s average temperature has risen by nearly 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius). This extra heat has accumulated in the atmosphere, which has led to seasonal temperature extremes, changes to annual snow covers, melting sea ice, greater extremes in rainfall accumulations and droughts, and ultimately, tremendous shifts in the environment.
Scientists identified 2019 as the second-hottest year on record. Rising sea levels, hurricanes, droughts, and flooding are some of the effects of high temperatures. Even minor shifts in Earth’s climate can have drastic effects on a localized environment. Rising sea levels created by melting sea ice are the most immediate threat to humans caused by climate change. The Isle de Jean Charles, a low-lying island in Louisiana, lost 98 percent of its land since 1955 due to erosion and saltwater floods. In 2016, the community’s one hundred residents became the first Americans to lose their homes to climate change when they were forced to abandon the island in a 48-million-dollar resettlement project. In Alaska, the entire town of Newtok was relocated 9 miles (14 kilometers) to the east after dangerous high tides began to flood the town regularly due to rising sea levels and the permafrost on which the town was built began to melt. In 2019, the cost of the project was estimated at more than 100 million dollars. The residents of both communities have been identified as climate refugees and given assistance from the federal government to allow them to move.
However, the problems caused by global warming go beyond rising sea levels. In 2018, the United Nations (UN) identified 17.2 million people from 148 countries and territories as having been at least temporarily displaced because of a climate-change-related disaster. In that year, more than 764,000 people were displaced in such countries as Afghanistan and Somalia as a result of drought. In 2019, more than 73,000 people were left homeless after Cyclone Idai—whose rapid intensification was believed to be caused by global warming—smashed into the country. Beyond even these numbers, climate change plays a growing role in world conflicts that have developed over the increasing scarcity of arable land and water. Scientists are continually seeking ways to help communities find solutions to help them adjust to changes caused by climate change to prevent future disasters and reduce the number of climate refugees. As of 2020, most scientists contend that the best way to do this is to reduce greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere.
Effects of Climate Change
While climate change is politically controversial, scientists nearly unanimously agree that changes to Earth’s climate are real and a serious threat to human lives. According to research by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), nearly 100 percent of global warming was the result of human activities, in particularly activities resulting in a tremendous rise in greenhouse gas emissions. Internationally, in 2015 concern about climate change resulted in 196 countries signing the Paris Agreement to establish standards that would limit global temperatures to less than a 3.6-degree Fahrenheit (2-degree Celsius) change above pre-Industrial averages, while actively seeking to reduce these levels to an overall increase of 2.7-degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius).
The planet’s environments are very sensitive to any changes in temperature. While 3.6 degrees may not sound significant, the European Geosciences Union (EGU) released a study in 2016 that determined the impact of a 2.7-degree temperature increase on Earth. Ultimately, these scientists determined that severe weather events could be one-third worse than normal when global temperatures averaged the 2.7-degree threshold established in Paris. For example, rain totals from thunderstorms would increase by one-third, droughts would last one-third longer, and heat waves would be extended by the same ratio. At a rise of 2.7 degrees, they calculated that the Earth’s coral reefs—one of the richest sources of sea life—could potentially adapt to warmer ocean waters by 2100. However, at a rise of 3.6 degrees, their research indicated that virtually all these reefs would be wiped out within the same window of time.
Even beyond the potential for future devastation, threats from climate change already exist. For instance, between December and February of 2019–2020, extended droughts in Australia, which were believed to be the result of global warming, caused hundreds of bushfires. Economic losses from these fires were expected to exceed four billion Australian dollars, while more than one billion animals were believed to have perished. Although southeastern Australia was already one of the most fire-prone areas in the world, climate change has had the effect of worsening such natural disasters.
Defining Climate Refugees
No international standard exists to define a climate refugee. While various agencies have established programs to help people displaced by disasters, the difficulty in defining what constitutes a climate-derived catastrophe versus one caused by environmental change have made some international agencies reluctant to provide a firm standard. Many observers even question the need to differentiate between the root causes of a disaster because ultimately, it is more important to assist survivors than specifically define the origins of their current displacement.
Defining whether a person is a refugee or simply someone who has been temporarily displaced can be similarly problematic. For example, Australians displaced by fires have clearly been impacted by environmental conditions. People who have lost their homes to fires are often faced with extended periods of displacement as they try to rebuild. However, many of these people intend to move back to their hometowns once the fires have ended. Therefore, can they still be defined as refugees? Similarly, some people become refugees as a result of drastic environmental changes that have nothing to do with the climate. In 1995, more than half the Caribbean island of Montserrat became uninhabitable when the Soufrière Hills volcano exploded. Two-thirds of the population left the island in the five years after the disaster due to ongoing concerns about their safety and damage to the island’s economy. Although a small number of Montserrat’s pre-1995 population has since returned, an even larger portion has permanently emigrated, making them environmental refugees. However, a volcanic explosion has no links to climate change. Does it matter whether the source of their problems was environmental or linked to climate change? Finally, in places such as the Sahel in Africa, climate change and global warming have led to vast tracts of land becoming uninhabitable. Water shortages and the loss of arable land have forced people to flee their homes permanently. Water shortages have similarly played a part in regional conflicts. While these water shortages are likely in part due to climate change, they also have deep links to pre-existing ethnic conflicts. So should an aid agency seek to differentiate how much of a refugee’s misery is linked to climate change versus tribal and national conflicts?
However, offering a definition for climate refugees can be important in two ways. First, identifying climate refugees may help to publicize the increasing dangers that climate change presents to humankind. When the media identifies climate change as the underlying cause as to why people in Louisiana and Alaska have been forced to abandon their homes, it allows people to recognize the scope of the threat. Second, establishing a firm definition for climate refugees enables international agencies like the United Nations (UN) to create programs tailored to assist victims.