Climate Change Displacement: Are We Ready?

In a research paper released last week by climate change guru Dr. James Hansen, he and 16 fellow scientists make the case that warming-induced melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets is happening much more quickly than previously anticipated. Needless to say, the idea that parts of Manhattan or Miami could be underwater in as soon as 50 years has sparked a good deal of alarm – and controversy, as the tricky business of climate modeling always does. But the fact that scientists still can’t say with certainty exactly how soon, or under what warming scenarios, major changes to the climate system are going to occur has made one thing evident: we’re simply not prepared – physically, psychologically, or policy-wise – to deal with that reality anytime soon.

Consider population displacement. If Dr. Hansen and his colleagues are correct, the next half century could see hundreds of millions of people uprooted from their land and homes by sea level rise, not to mention millions of others displaced by more extreme weather and loss of livelihoods. In Bangladesh alone, a 1.5 meter (5 foot) rise in sea level would displace an estimated 34 million people. Inhabitants of low-lying island nations like Kiribati and Vanuatu that are only one to two meters (approximately 3 to 7 feet) above sea level would be forced to retreat to other countries, and questions on how to maintain their nationality and governance structures in absentia would need to be resolved. Which countries will take people displaced by sea level rise? Will people whose lands are submerged or become uninhabitable due to storm surge, coastal erosion, and salt water intrusion be compensated for their losses? And who will pay for people to relocate, either within their own countries or abroad? 

In a world that is failing miserably to address the protection and assistance needs of 60 million people forced to flee war and persecution, are we prepared to respond to hundreds of millions more who will need to find new homes and livelihoods as a result of global warming? 

There are important differences between those displaced by climate change-related impacts and those fleeing war and persecution. The most obvious is the opportunity to prevent such displacement from occurring in the first place. While the extent to which we can prevent wars or conflicts from erupting is debatable, there’s little question that a whole lot more could be achieved in terms of addressing humans’ contribution to climate change. As Pelenise Alofa, a climate activist from Kiribati recently pointed out to me, “I don’t want to be a refugee. No one wants to be a refugee. But we don’t have conflicts at home. These problems are imposed on us by other countries.” 

A mother carries her baby on a street flooded with sea water in Mayangan village in Subang, Indonesia. REUTERS/Beawiharta 

A mother carries her baby on a street flooded with sea water in Mayangan village in Subang, Indonesia. REUTERS/Beawiharta 

First and foremost, preventing or mitigating climate displacement will require the world’s leading emitters to take bold and effective action to reign in global warming. Preventing or minimizing climate-driven displacement will also require a commitment to smarter, more climate-resilient development. At present, rapid urbanization especially of coastal cities, poor land use planning, and environmental degradation are all putting more and more people and assets in harm’s way. 

In a world that is failing miserably to address the protection and assistance needs of 60 million people forced to flee war and persecution, are we prepared to respond to hundreds of millions more who will need to find new homes and livelihoods as a result of global warming?

Unlike displacement from war and persecution, there is no comprehensive normative framework to prevent or respond to climate change-related displacement. The 1951 Refugee Convention does not recognize people forced to flee because of disasters or due to the impacts of climate change (despite the common use of the term “climate refugees.”) There has been some progress, albeit limited, at the international level, where discussions are ongoing under the leadership of the Nansen Initiative to adopt voluntary regional and bilateral arrangements for the protection of those displaced across borders in the context of disasters and climate. At the national level, however, there has been little progress in terms of preventing or managing climate-related displacement, including here in the United States where communities in Alaska and elsewhere are already being forced to move inland. 

In both developed and developing countries, governments must incorporate into their laws and policies – as well as into development, land use, and climate change adaptation plans – measure to prevent displacement from occurring where possible, to protect those who are displaced, and to ensure that those forced to relocate as a result of disasters or other climate change-related effects are fully protected and supported. 

In short, we need to act now to put in place comprehensive, well-funded strategies and frameworks to address climate displacement. Waiting for scientific certainty on how soon we can expect that to happen won’t be soon enough. 

Banner image: Reuters photo.