Will the US Choose to Be on the Right Side of History and Welcome Climate Refugees?

February 27, 2017 | 3:34 pm
Credit: NPS
Adam Markham
Deputy Director of Climate and Energy

How the US and the world respond to the growing global refugee crisis will be a defining moral issue for this generation. And understanding how climate change will impact the future flow of refugees and displaced persons is one of the most important challenges we face today.

Refugees are fleeing conflict and violence in war-torn countries—including Syria, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo—but climate-related events are also causing a rising number of displacements worldwide. In some parts of the world, extreme weather events such as drought are increasing the risk of conflicts and worsening conditions for refugees and displaced people.

One person every second is displaced by climate

According to United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) one person every second is being displaced by climate factors, with an average of more than 26 million people displaced by climate and weather-related events annually since 2008. More than 65 million people worldwide are currently displaced and 21 million of them are classified as refugees. Developing countries host the vast majority of refugees, and the number who are permanently resettled in the developed world is only about 100,000 annually, or less than 1 percent.

More than 20 million Bangladeshis may be displaced by climate impacts by 2050. Photo: Connor Ashley/Asia Foundation

The US has been the international leader for refugee resettlement for at least the last 40 years. Since 1975, the US has admitted more than 3 million refugees for resettlement, including 85,000 in 2016. But is that about to change? In his campaign for the presidency, Donald J. Trump threatened to send Syrian refugees back to a war zone where more than 11 million people have been driven from their homes since 2011. Within a few days of becoming president, Trump tried to ban all Syrian refugees, along with those from six other predominantly Muslim countries.

Outdated legal definitions don’t take climate change into account

The number of people displaced by sea level rise, coastal inundation, drought, and other extreme weather events is projected to rise sharply in the next few decades. And yet people who are forced to leave their homes because of climate-related impacts cannot currently be legally classified as refugees.

Under the 1951 Refugee Convention, only those who have had to flee their country because of conflict or persecution qualify as refugees. According to international law, people fleeing famine, drought, or natural disasters do not qualify as refugees, even if they are forced to cross international borders. However, in the light of worsening climate impacts, some climate mobility advocates are testing the traditional definition of refugees, and recent court cases have been brought in New Zealand and Australia by and on behalf of Pacific islanders who are being forced to abandon their homes and communities as a result of rising seas.

Climate change will vastly swell numbers of displaced persons

At the recent Global Security Conference in Munich, Patricia Espinosa Cantellano, the UN’s top climate official said, “Climate change is a threat multiplier that leads to social upheaval and possibly even armed conflict.”

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has warned of an increase in climate migrants and refugees driven by extreme event, and concluded that “Populations that lack the resources for planned migration experience higher exposure to extreme weather events, particularly in developing countries with low income. Climate change can indirectly increase risks of violent conflicts by amplifying well-documented drivers of these conflicts such as poverty and economic shocks.”

The Government of Bangladesh has estimated that more than 20 million Bangladeshis may be displaced by mid-century. The 22 Pacific Island nations estimate that 1.7 million of their 9.2 million inhabitants (nearly 20 percent of the total population) will face displacement by 2050. The International Organization on Migration (IOM) has estimated that by 2050 the number of people displaced by climate change could be as high as 250 million worldwide.

Unfortunately, the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change fell short on practical measures to respond to climate displacement and made no recommendation about changing the international definition of refugees to include climate refugees. The agreement merely notes the importance of respecting the rights of migrants, and setting up a “Climate Displacement Task Force” to propose measures “to avert, minimize and address displacement related to the adverse effects of climate change.”

Climate change makes the droughts that help drive famine and conflict more likely

Globally, climate change is driving more intense storms and floods, coastal inundation and erosion, and worsening wildfires and droughts.

The impacts of extreme weather events on people can be dramatic. In 2015, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC) for example, 3 million people in Myanmar and the southern Indian states of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh were displaced by flooding. And Cyclone Pam caused 55 and 25 per cent respectively of the populations of Vanuatu and Tuvalu to seek safety away from their homes.

Last November, ActionAid published a report on the drought effects of the 2015-16 El Niño during which approximately 30 percent of the world’s landmass was affected by drought and more than 400 million people were negatively affected. This extraordinarily severe and complex drought has caused countless people to be displaced globally, including more than 200,000 in Ethiopia alone. The drought has forced people in Djibouti, Somalia, Brazil, Colombia, Bolivia, the Philippines, India, and many other countries to move away from their homes and communities, or to seek help across the borders of other countries.

Natural El Niño cycles have always caused weather disruptions, but there is a growing body of scientific evidence to suggest that El Niños are likely to be intensified by climate change. The 2015-16 El Niño was stronger than the prior record-breaking El Niño of 1997-98, which, in its turn, was worse than previously recorded El Niños. New science is helping to show the extent to which individual events are becoming more intense or more likely. Other studies predict that mega-droughts are likely to become more frequent in some regions of the world.

Whilst the causes of the current conflict in Syria are complex and multi-faceted, there is some science indicating that it may have at least some of its roots in climate change. The severe drought in northeast Syria from 2007 to 2010 was the worst in the instrumental record, causing widespread crop failures and mass migration from rural to urban areas, factors which contributed to the economic disruptions and social unrest that were factors in the 2011 outbreak of civil war which has caused at least 11 million Syrians to flee their homes, with nearly 5 million those becoming refugees. One study estimated that that a regional drought of this magnitude was made two to three times more likely to occur by human-induced climate change.

Climate impacts are driving people from their homes in the US as in Pacific nations

The droughts that drive people from their homes develop over a period of months, years, or even decades and are called “slow onset events” by the humanitarian aid community (in contrast to floods and storms which are “rapid onset events” and cause immediate displacement). Sea level rise and coastal inundation are the slow onset events most associated with climate change in the public mind, and many communities across the globe are already moving, or preparing to move.

Approximately 1700 Carteret islanders from Papua New Guinea will have to be relocated to the mainland. Most of their food gardens have already been damaged by rising sea levels. Photo: Friends of the Earth

Many villages impacted by sea level rise have already had to relocate or plan relocations in the Pacific nations of Fiji, Vanuatu, Tuvalu, Papua New Guinea, and Samoa. In the US, the residents of Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana, mostly members of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe, are being forced from their land by sea level rise, and the Quinault Indian Nation village of Taholah on Washington’s coast is planning to relocate as is the Alaskan Native village of Kivalina on the Chukchi Sea. Thirty more native Alaskan villages have been identified as in imminent danger from climate impacts.

The US should be a leader on climate displacement and mobility

With internal climate displacement already manifest inside the US, and the seeds of a climate refugee crisis growing in vulnerable countries worldwide, now is the time for the US to reaffirm, not retreat from its commitment to refugees, and to provide international policy leadership on climate displacement.

An immigrant nation, the US has long been a beacon for the rest of the world, welcoming millions seeking a better, safer life. More than a million Irish immigrants sought to escape from famine between 1845 and 1855, refugees and political exiles fled to America after the European political upheavals of 1848 and the Mexican and Russian Revolutions of 1910 and 1917.

America’s values are embodied by the Statue of Liberty, which is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site for being “a masterpiece of the human spirit” and “a highly potent symbol—inspiring contemplation, debate, and protest—of ideals such as liberty, peace, human rights, abolition of slavery, democracy, and opportunity.” At the statue’s centennial celebration in 1986, President Reagan said “Miss Liberty is still giving life to the dream of a new world where old antagonisms could be cast aside and people of every nation could live together as one.

Despite the US priding itself on being an immigrant nation, refugee policies have often been controversial here, and undercurrents of racism, bigotry, and xenophobia have frequently surfaced. President Harry Truman fought hard to get Congress to pass the Displaced Persons Act of 1948, and when he did finally get the bill to sign, he was incensed at its limitations, particularly what he saw as discrimination against Jewish and Catholic refugees in the Allied occupation zone of Germany. He said “The bad points of the bill are numerous. Together they form a pattern of discrimination and intolerance wholly inconsistent with the American sense of justice.” Nevertheless, more than 650,000 displaced Europeans were allowed to enter the US between the end of the Second World War and the early 1950s.

Ronald Reagan welcomed more refugees to the United States than any other president since Harry Truman. “It’s good to know that Miss Liberty is still giving life to the dream of a new world” Reagan said in 1986.

Is President Trump abandoning US moral leadership on refugees?

Every president since Truman has supported programs to bring refugees to the United States. President Dwight D. Eisenhower said of the Refugee Relief Act of 1952, “In enacting this legislation, we are giving a new chance in life to 214,000 fellow humans. This action demonstrates again America’s traditional concern for the homeless, the persecuted and the less fortunate of other lands.”

More refugees were resettled under President Reagan than under any other president, especially from Cuba, the Soviet Union, and Iran, and he reiterated traditional American values. In 1985 in an address to the UN, Reagan reaffirmed “America is committed to the world, because so much of the world is inside America. After all, only a few miles from this very room is our Statue of Liberty, past which life began anew for millions… The blood of each nation courses through the American vein.”

President Trump’s vision couldn’t be further from the post-war presidential tradition of acceptance of refugees as a moral duty or the acknowledgement that immigrants provide the lifeblood of America’s strength, vibrancy and diversity. The Trump administration is divisively stoking fears of foreigners, increasing deportations, clamping down on refugees, deliberately scaring undocumented immigrants ,and seeking ways to discourage legal immigration, especially from majority Muslim countries.

Meanwhile, the international refugee crisis is worsening. There have never been more people displaced by conflict, political violence, and natural disasters than there are today. Climate change is already exacerbating the problem and will become a direct driver of unprecedented forced mobility in the next few decades.

When climate displacement reaches a critical point, which side of history will America come down on? Will it be the closed borders of President Trump’s America First isolationism, or will we respond in the manner of President Truman to “human suffering that the people of the United States cannot and will not ignore”?

History will judge us on how we respond to the coming climate displacements, just as it will judge us if we fail to do all we can to support today’s refugees from conflict in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, and so many other places.