Confronting the Impacts of Climate Change

There are close to 60 million people currently displaced by war and persecution, the most since World War II. You have undoubtedly seen the media coverage of the crisis in the Mediterranean that illustrates the enormous challenges refugees face in trying to access protection and assistance. Advocating for life-saving protection for refugees and displaced people has been Refugees International’s mission for more than 35 years. However, at a time when the humanitarian system is near breaking and countries are struggling to meet the protection and assistance needs of millions of people fleeing war and persecution, I am deeply concerned that the U.S. and world leaders are not fully confronting the potential impact of climate change on displacement and migration, and the threat it presents to human security.

Each year, 22.5 million people on average are forced to flee floods, storms, and other severe weather events. That equals 62,000 people a day. Millions more are affected by drought, food crises, and other disasters that are becoming more frequent and severe.

Over the past few decades, we have seen the numbers of disaster-displaced people increase significantly due to more extreme weather compounded by population growth, environmental degradation, and poor development practices. At the same time, there is increasing evidence of the propensity of climate-related stress to exacerbate preexisting social and ethnic tensions, thereby heightening the risk of civil unrest and even armed conflict. 

Climate change hits the poorest and most vulnerable communities the hardest, especially those living in fragile and conflict-ridden states.

For example, in 2011, Refugees International witnessed a regional drought in the Horn of Africa quickly deteriorate into a famine in war-torn Somalia. This was due not only to the lack of a functioning government to respond to the disaster, but also the inability of aid agencies to reach drought-stricken communities in the midst of the fighting. As a result, a quarter of a million people – mainly children – died. Hundreds of thousands more literally had to walk across the border to get food and water. 

At present, parts of East and South Africa and the Middle East are experiencing severe drought brought on by the strongest El Niño in decades, which many believe has been worsened due to climate change. Drought conditions and lack of food are impacting millions of extremely poor and vulnerable people from Ethiopia to Zimbabwe to Yemen, and undoubtedly have the potential to increase civil unrest in the most volatile regions. 

Having worked to assist refugees across the globe for more than 25 years, I can tell you that the humanitarian system is neither prepared nor sufficiently funded to deal with millions of people who may be uprooted by climate change in the coming decades. We don’t have the resources, and we don’t have the legal protection frameworks since those forced to flee natural- and climate-related disasters are not covered by the 1951 Refugee Convention.

I am deeply concerned that the U.S. and world leaders are not fully confronting the potential impact of climate change on displacement and migration, and the threat it presents to human security.

But there is some cause for hope. Unlike war and conflict, numerous opportunities exist to prevent and minimize climate-related displacement, but only if we act now.  First and foremost, preventing climate displacement will require the world’s leading emitters to take bold and effective action to reign in global warming. It 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 order to avert and minimize climate displacement, national governments in developing and least developed countries will require both increased financial and technical assistance. At the same time, national governments must incorporate measures to address climate displacement risk and integrate it into climate change adaptation and development planning, as well as measures to better manage climate-related migration as an adaptation strategy.

But we must act immediately. One need only to consider the tragedy that has unfolded in the Mediterranean to understand what unmanaged, unmitigated displacement and migration look like.