Climate Change Refugees Are Already Here

“The negative impacts of climate change are already causing migration and displacement.” So begins “In Search of Shelter”, a new report on the human impacts of climate change, released recently by a team of NGOs, including the United Nations, CARE International and Columbia University.

The report discusses human migration as related to climate change. The gist? Climate change has already impacted human migration, and will only get worse if we do not take immediate action. “In Search of Shelter” was released in early June at the Bonn Climate Change Talks, a series of meetings being held to prepare for the Copenhagen Climate Conference in December.
The report makes no attempt to quantify human displacement due to global warming, nor does it provide a laundry list of terrifying statistics. It simply combines scientific and demographic data with field interviews conducted with refugees in over 23 countries.
And the report very clearly states the bottom line: “the international community has until the next Conference of Parties to the UNFCCC…to agree on the right way forward. If this deadline isn’t met, we will almost surely shoot past any safe emissions scenario and commit future generations to a much more dangerous world.”
The primary findings of the report are ominous and tragic. People that live on islands and in developing countries will be the first to be impacted, and will be hit the hardest. Some climate change migrants will stay in their home countries, but many will cross borders. Female-led households will not have the same resources at their disposal to flee when their home becomes dangerous. Existing refugee relief infrastructure will be rendered useless.
This massive human migration due to climate change will happen because of many inescapable realities: changing weather patterns affect crop yields, natural disasters crumble communities to the ground, landscapes become unlivable.
The report cites the Vietnamese Mekong River Delta as an example. In 2000, almost 29 million people lived along the shores of the river delta. If the sea were to rise six feet, 14.2 million homes would be flooded and destroyed. Three million hectares of agricultural land would be submerged.
The world’s most poverty-stricken populations are the most vulnerable to climate change. These are the people that will be known as “climate refugees.” This issue, however, has become contentious because it is so hard to analyze and quantify. Some organizations claim that human migration due to climate change is non-existent; that economic and political factors rather than environmental factors cause people to flee their home countries.
In truth, economy, politics and the environment are inextricably linked for most of the world’s population. Even the term “climate refugee” has been challenged, with alternatives such as “environmentally induced migrant” being proposed.
Some organizations say that 50 million people will be displaced due to climate change by 2010. Others say one billion people will be displaced by 2050. “In Search of Shelter” makes no attempt to assign a number to the issue. They simply state that climate change is already making a difference on human migration patterns. And we already know that climate change is a slippery slope.
The report, then, serves an important purpose: it adds an emotional human dimension to the UNFCCC talks in December. Outcomes, however, remain to be seen.

Rebecca Greenberg is an MBA candidate at the Presidio School of Management. Prior to her studies at Presidio, her professional experience was primarily focused in corporate retail merchandising at both Gap Inc. and Williams-Sonoma, Inc. Having traveled extensively in the developing world and having worked in corporate America, Rebecca is very passionate about applying business principles to sustainable development and poverty alleviation.

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