War and conflict are no longer the primary drivers of displacement and humanitarian crises. More extreme weather and other climate change impacts are increasingly playing a role. In 2016 alone, 24 million people were forced from their homes by weather-related disasters, far more than were displaced by conflict. Meanwhile, more frequent and protracted droughts, especially in poor and unstable countries in Africa and the Middle East, are undermining food security, causing people to migrate in order to survive, and fueling pre-existing social and ethnic tensions. In war-torn Somalia, for example, the worst drought in 50 years and approaching famine conditions have displaced more than 700,000 people who have fled to cities and other countries in order to survive.
Invariably, it is the poorest and those who bear least responsibility for the climate crisis who are impacted the most. Yet those most in need of protection are least able to access it. Problematically, the UN Refugees Convention does not protect those forced to flee their countries due to natural disasters or climate change effects. In the wake of hurricanes, floods, and other disasters, those displaced within their own countries (including in the United States) often receive the least assistance and are discriminated against the most.
The recent decision of President Donald Trump to renege on U.S. commitments under the UN Paris Climate Agreement to reduce its emissions, as well as to help poor countries adapt to the impacts of climate change, comes as a huge setback. As the world’s second largest emitter of greenhouse gases, the largest historical emitter, and the largest emitter on a per capita basis, the U.S. contribution to the growing climate crisis is beyond dispute. In pulling the United States out of the Paris Accord, President Trump ignored both serious upsides and downsides. These include not only the enormous economic and health benefits that renewable energy offers, but also the significant threat to stability and human security that not acting to address climate change presents. Not helping the most vulnerable countries to adapt will leave them more vulnerable and result in even more humanitarian crises and instability in the future. Rather than steering the world towards more ambitious climate action and holding fast-developing countries accountable to their reduction commitments, we are contributing to a more dangerous world.
On World Refugee Day, it is imperative that we not be deterred. It is extremely encouraging to see the world doing just that in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from Paris as members of Congress and state and local governments, other nations, and the private sector step up efforts to address climate change. But there are other opportunities as well. Increased investments in reducing disaster risk (DRR) and making homes, schools, infrastructure, and societies more resilient are needed at all levels. In addition, governments must make efforts to map climate displacement risk (especially at the local level) and to support the most vulnerable communities to either adapt in place, or to voluntarily relocate or migrate elsewhere.
These and other actions present opportunities to minimize the impacts of climate change on forced displacement and humanitarian crises, but only if we act now. The longer we wait to curb warming pollution and help the most climate-vulnerable communities adapt to unavoidable changes to the climate system, the greater the humanitarian response costs, lost development gains, and human suffering into the future.
Alice Thomas is the Climate Displacement Program Manager at Refugees International.