The Many Faces of Climate Displacement

By Alice Thomas
Destroyed homes in Breezy Point section of Queens, almost two months after superstorm Sandy. Reuters Photo/Lucas Jackson

The day Hurricane Sandy slammed into the East Coast, I was in Mali, a country in West Africa’s Sahel region. As a native New Yorker, I was stunned and dismayed to see pictures of the flooded streets and tunnels of Manhattan, of destroyed homes and schools on Staten Island, and of thousands of my fellow New Yorkers displaced and in shelters. But I was even more struck by the indiscriminate nature of what I was witnessing both in Mali (one of the world’s poorest countries) and the United States (one of its richest): massive humanitarian emergencies resulting from more extreme weather.

As manager of the Bacon Center for the Study of Climate Displacement at Refugees International, I had come to Mali to assess the needs of hundreds of thousands of Malians, who were facing not only extreme weather, but a deadly combination of weather and war. Late last year, Mali and its neighbors were hit by a severe drought – the third in seven years – and slipped into a food crisis. A mind-boggling 18 million people across the region were left without sufficient food, and one million children were put at risk of starvation.

Compounding the crisis, conflict had erupted in Mali when ethnic Tuareg separatists and Al Qaeda-linked Islamist groups took over the north. These groups now control a vast swath of the Sahara desert, and more than 400,000 Malians have been forced to flee as a result. Many have ended up in remote desert areas in neighboring countries, where local populations are already facing serious food and water shortages. As if that weren’t enough, the conflict has made it harder for aid groups to reach food-insecure populations who remain trapped in Mali’s northern regions.

This crisis may be centered on Mali right now, but every nation in the Sahel faces the same deadly combination of increased climate variability and growing political instability. Chronically poor to begin with, and almost entirely dependent on rain-fed agriculture for their livelihoods, the people of the Sahel are being hit more and more frequently with natural disasters. Their governments, however, lack capacity to effectively respond to these disasters, which is only increasing social discontent. The likely end result, as Mali has demonstrated, is instability, displacement, and thousands of lives lost.

I have often been asked to explain what is meant by the term “climate displacement.” Almost three years into my job, I still struggle to succinctly describe its many human faces. There are, of course, the many poor farmers and herders I met in Mali and Niger, who will see increased hunger and malnutrition brought on by higher temperatures and more erratic rainfall. There are also the inhabitants of low-lying island states like the Maldives, who could lose their entire countries to increased storm surges and sea-level rise within decades. And then there are the residents of New York, New Jersey, and other northeastern states: unable to return to their homes more than a month after Hurricane Sandy and still waiting for assistance to arrive.

In the face of a changing climate, it is important that we recognize our common vulnerabilities – across the country and across the globe. Both at home and abroad, we must do more to protect those forced from their homes by natural disasters, and to prevent more people from being displaced as the full effects of climate change unfold. Political will may be in short supply – at least here in the United States – but there is no shortage of actions we could take if we chose to act.

First, the way we respond to and prevent disasters must be improved at the local and national levels. Right now, we spend far more money responding to humanitarian emergencies caused by natural disasters than we do helping our own communities – and vulnerable populations abroad – prepare for them. This needs to change. Investments in helping the most vulnerable populations adapt to extreme weather and changing climactic conditions must be increased.

Second, world leaders need to understand how climate change will reshape humanitarian needs and be proactive about forging solutions. A growing number of people around the world will be forced from their homes by more extreme and erratic weather – or a combination of weather and conflict, as is often the case. However, the current legal and political framework for assisting refugees was designed to respond to war and persecution, not weather. And many countries don’t recognize the rights to assistance and protection of people displaced within their own borders by natural disasters. Without significant changes, the world won’t be prepared to protect those displaced internally or across national borders by climate-related events when the time comes.

The third and final task is both the most obvious and the most urgent: the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases must act immediately to embrace cleaner fuels and smarter solutions to our energy challenges. Refusing to curb emissions only jeopardizes our welfare and security, and that of future generations. The American people must demand better – both for ourselves, and for every community that shares this planet.