The word refugee is one that has swept through the media on a daily if not hourly basis for decades. First coined by France in 1685, the term has since been used to describe unimaginable and distressing events across the globe. Now, we face a new era of displacement; the climate refugee.
Today we are at a tipping point. The world is facing numerous challenges, all entwined into a global web of complication too abundant to comprehend. We see images of polar bears perched precariously on the melting tips of icebergs, Koalas clinging on to the scraps of forests left behind by wildfires, skeletons of trees scattered across drought ridden savanna. But what are we seeing of humans?
I first learnt of the concept of climate refugees whilst studying Arctic climate change. It broke my heart to learn that the civilians on the island of Kivalina in Alaska were quite literally watching their livelihoods slip from beneath their feet and their hunting season disappear into thin air. The Arctic is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the world with estimates suggesting that Kivalina will be underwater by the year 2025. With attempts to sue fossil fuel companies and gain aid from the government, they have received little help and virtually no success. Communities like Kivalina will soon have no choice but to search for refuge.
My thoughts for Kivalina were resurfaced by an article released this week that quoted the United Nations Human Rights Committee:
‘It is unlawful for governments to return people to countries where their lives might be threatened by the climate crisis’.United Nations Human Rights Committee
This is a huge step in the important recognition of communities across the world at the front line of climate change.
According to the Guardian, tens of millions of people are expected to face displacement in the next decade due to global climatic changes. Whether it be coastal flooding, wildfire damage or severe annual drought, climate change is encroaching on peoples livelihoods and settlements. Though many are trying to adapt, some are now being forced to flee their homes in search for new beginnings.
In the most serious of cases isolated island communities have been seen attempting to cross borders, applying for protection in larger and more secure countries such as New Zealand.
In 2008, the Maldives government was even rightfully looking at purchasing land elsewhere to move their entire island community. It’s suggested that in the next 100 years the Maldives may be entirely uninhabitable by humans; that’s a whole nation… gone.
“If you allow for a two degree rise in temperature, you are actually agreeing to kill us,”Maldivian President Nasheed (Copenhagen Climate Summit 2009).
Even with global stories like these the term ‘Climate Refugee‘, though used in the media, does not exist in international law. In fact defining climate refugee is a complicated debate currently being discussed by many organisations. Historically, a refugee is someone who has been unwillingly forced to migrate across countries borders. However climate change usually has localised impacts causing internal displacement and migration before such extremes are reached.
The fact is, no matter how wealthy or equipped a country may be, the world is on route to face an onset of a climate migration crisis. People may not be having to cross countries borders just yet, but their livelihoods and community bonds are being threatened.
Whilst I sit here safely in the quaint south west of England, I find it important to understand the global scenario. Unless we search further for a global effort to fight the onset of enhanced climate change, communities like the Kivalina people could face forced displacement with little or no help from governments. With new temperatures come new challenges and the world will need to open their arms to refugees .
As with all my climate focused blog posts, please remember that there is always hope and ways to help. The climate crisis is a call for action, not for panic.
I want to know your thoughts and stories. Has your community been affected by climate change? How do you feel about the term climate refugee? Comment below.