The climate refugee challenge

from International Relations and Security Network
Published on 14 Apr 2009 View Original
Climate change must be considered from a security perspective as it portends to generate millions of climate refugees, rendering the issue of 'environmentally induced migrants' a leading 21st-century global security challenge, Claudio Guler writes for ISN Security Watch.

By Claudio Guler for ISN Security Watch

The chief obstacle in marshalling resources to curb climate change lies in clarifying the abstract nature and inconsistent onset of the issue. When and where will climate change occur? How long does the world have to react? Will climate change necessarily be bad for everyone?

Obscurity fuels skepticism, which in turn delays action. Considering climate change from a security perspective allays this quandary. Climate change portends to generate millions of climate refugees, imperil human security and threaten regional and international stability.

Rising sea levels, coastal erosion, the increased incidence of severe weather events, encroaching desertification and water shortages, all pose a threat to livelihoods. The ramifications of climate change are manifold; they incorporate, nevertheless, an unmistakable north-south component. Those least equipped to cope will likely be those most affected.

Numbers expected to 'double'

In 2007, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reckoned it served some 31.7 million persons of concern under its mandate. This figure included 11.4 million political refugees, but did not take into account persons displaced by environmental change.

Projections on climate refugees vary widely. According to an UNHCR estimate, climate or environmental refugees totaled roughly 25 million in 1995. Professor Norman Myers of Green College, Oxford University, has put forth other often-cited estimates. By 2010, Professor Myers forecasts the 25 million figure to double to 50 million. He counsels, nevertheless, that "the 1995 estimate of 25 million environmental refugees is cautious and conservative."

By 2050, most observers project climate refugees to swell into the range of 150 to 200 million. If accurate, these figures readily surpass those of conventional political refugees.

Not-so-trite semantics

Albeit popular in the press, the term "climate refugee" enjoys no legal authority. The 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees is the core treaty of international refugee law. Article 1 defines a refugee as any person who "owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it." The definition does not afford binding legal protection to environmentally displaced persons, and focuses instead on political refugees and refugees of violent conflict.

A 1967 Protocol later amended the 1951 Convention and removed geographic and time constraints, rendering the convention a more universal document. Climate refugees, however, remained outside the legal framework. The UN world recognizes this dissimilarity and employs a verbose working definition instead - "environmentally induced migrant."

The result puts humanitarians and environmentalists compassionately at odds. Humanitarians argue their limited resources are already overstretched. Environmentalists note that climate change and consequently environmental displacement are byproducts of human-led industrialization. Sheltering those victimized by climate change is a moral and security imperative.

Governments, academics and NGOs are exploring measures to close this loophole, particularly in the run-up to the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen from 7-18 December. The near-term prospects, however, remain unpropitious.

An adaptation fund focusing on least developed countries (LDC) and other developing states is to go on line soon. It was established under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). All the same, Dr Koko Warner of the United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS) told ISN Security Watch: "[It is not] clear whether issues such as resettlement or migration will actually be eligible for adaptation funding. Right now, the conversation is a little too early."

Professor Frank Biermann of the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam explained to ISN Security Watch that "politically speaking, we are now in the process of agenda agenda around climate refugees is forming, but this needs maybe a decade until [it] is really institutionalized in the political process, in the form of legal agreements, funding structures and implementation programs."

In a December 2008 article in Environment magazine, Professor Biermann and researcher Ingrid Boas made the case for a global protocol to deal with climate refugees. In his conversation with ISN Security Watch, Professor Biermann underscored, "We propose a fund that is specifically there for climate refugees."

Resettlement easier said than done

Eventually, to avoid the most adverse of scenarios, resettlement and funding schemes will be needed. Civil society is leading the charge. Due to their proximity to the Pacific islands, the governments of Australia and New Zealand have become early targets of pressure.

The right to resettlement, however, begs a fundamental question: How does the international community distinguish between victims of climate change and casualties of unsustainable development? Professor Biermann explains that although this distinction may be useful in the developed world, elsewhere it is unfitting. "It is difficult to say for developing countries [...] you can't tell the Egyptians its your problem that you settled in the Nile [Delta], because this what they have been doing for the last 5,000 years.

"[That] is why we make the distinction between climate refugees and other refugees - because of the moral link between causation and consequence. Rich industrialized countries, they have been responsible for the largest part of this problem."

Any resettlement, nevertheless, will likely be onerous. Displaced populations may be forced to take up residence in foreign countries, straining cultural traditions and in certain cases the very existence of their national identities. Refugees, never mind their genesis, are rarely regarded as a blessing. They necessitate costly assistance and their presence - albeit through no fault of their own - frequently engenders political strife with local communities, all the more reason for drafting resettlement schemes early on.

Sea change for developing countries

Those living near low-lying coastal areas are most exposed. The Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) expects sea levels to rise anywhere from 9 to 88 cm by 2100. (Note: Some regard this estimate as too conservative). Of a projected global population of 9 billion in 2050, just under one-third will live within 96 kilometers of the coasts.

Some idyllic small island states - many members to the Association of Small Island States (AOSIS) - are at risk of disappearing entirely. The atolls of Tuvalu lie just 4.5 meters above sea level. A sea level rise of one meter threatens flooding, crop destruction and fresh water contamination. President Anote Tong of Kiribati told the UN he expected his country to become uninhabitable in 50 years, arguing: "Our very lives are at stake." Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed has publicly expressed his interest in relocating the country.

Large river deltas are another imperiled area. In Bangladesh, one of the lowest-lying countries in the world, locals are contemplating ways to move their livelihoods onto boats. Bangladesh stands to generate 20 million climate refugees by 2030. Sections of the eastern coast of China, the Niger Delta region, The Netherlands and Venice, among others, face increasing prospects of flooding.

The US Gulf Coast, in addition to being a victim of coastal erosion and rising sea levels, has as of late demonstrated the dangers associated with the increased incidence of severe weather events.

Fresh water shortages, encroaching desertification and declining food production in equatorial regions represent other sources for concern. This has already manifested itself in East Africa. The conflict in Darfur, which has left an estimated 300,000 dead and 2.7 million displaced, arose in part because of encroaching desertification, scarce grazing opportunities for livestock and resource competition. Climate change has forced an estimated one million pastoralists in Kenya to renounce their livelihoods. Over the past 100 years, Kenya has fallen prey to 28 major droughts. Their frequency is increasing.

Central and Eastern Asia will likely experience significant fresh water shortages. India, Pakistan, China and the Central Asian countries all rely on river systems fed by glacial waters that originate in the Himalayas. Receding glaciers equal diminishing water supplies.

Setting priorities a priority

Climate refugees exemplify the human security challenges associated with climate change. Even though, as Professor Biermann points out, the discussion on climate refugees remains in its infancy, priorities lie ahead for the international community and developed countries in particular.

If 1.5 to 2 percent of the global population has the potential to find itself on the move by 2050, the international community must make headway in defining legally who does and does not constitutes a climate refugee. It is also incumbent on the international community to draft and approve comprehensive resettlement and funding schemes. If the unavoidable, yet predictable security perils of climate change are to be mitigated, orderly resettlement will be of paramount import.