Beyond Borders: We Need To Talk About Climate Refugees

I see a clear and present danger. Our climate is changing and it will harm us all.

Climate change is not just about polar bears, it is about all life on our planet, and it poses a threat to humanity as great – or greater – than war or terrorism. Climate change has the potential to not only undo advances promoting basic human rights and development: it is increasingly viewed as a threat to global peace.

As I write this, levels of carbon dioxide in our global atmosphere have just exceeded 410 parts per million for the first time in human history, warming our planet with profound consequences for our global community.

Climate change is already exacerbating extreme poverty, food insecurity and inequitable access to natural resources including fresh water. It will increasingly impact on food production, social stability, economic wealth and security. Climate change acts as a threat multiplier and magnifier, driving people from their homes and lands in vast and growing numbers. These facts and the future implications of climate change are highlighted in the Environmental Justice Foundation’s latest research.

While disrupted weather patterns bring too much, or too little, water, and extreme weather events destroy crops and kill livestock, more and more people will be left not knowing where their next meal is coming from. and more and more will be forced to move. As forced mass migration deepens, the likelihood of localised, trans-boundary and regional conflicts will magnify. The implications for the well-being of millions will be matched by the potential threat of conflicts that will arise, at least in part, from climate change.

Since 2008, over 21 million people have been displaced, on average, every year by weather-related hazards, which are magnifying and multiplying due to climate change. Around 59,000 people every day – or 41 people every single minute. Millions more have been forced to leave their homes due to prolonged droughts and their devastating impacts.

And hundreds of millions more people are living on the edge of disaster.

About 300 million people who live on or near the coast in Indonesia are vulnerable to sea level rise. Some island nations such as Tuvalu, the Maldives and Vanuatu are set to disappear altogether. Entire nations forced to flee their land and homes. Across the world this will be repeated in low-lying areas.

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BEYOND BORDERS from Environmental Justice Foundation on Vimeo.

In Bangladesh one metre of sea level rise would equate to a loss of 17-20 per cent of territory. The government estimates that would create around 25 million climate refugees, while other experts suggest nearer 35 million. Bangladesh does not have the capacity to absorb such mass displacement (most poorer countries do not), so refugees will be forced into neighbouring countries. And as the basic necessities of life become precious commodities, the risk of conflict will surge.

While senior military figures in Bangladesh have pointed, urgently, to these threats, making clear that peace is at risk not just in their country, but across South Asia and the rest of the world, senior military figures from Britain to the United States have raised a similar alarm, identifying climate change and the accompanying threats to our national and global security as a cause for urgent action.

They are warning world leaders of the need to cut our addiction to carbon – today.

And we must consider that those who are least to blame for climate change are those who will be affected worst. The world’s least developed countries produce only a fraction of global greenhouse gas emissions and have had far fewer of the benefits reaped by the developed world from their carbon-based economies.

But, while the poorest and most vulnerable will be among the first and worst impacted, the world’s wealthiest nations will not escape the effects of climate change. In the US, New Orleans, parts of Florida and the East Coast will all be hit as sea levels rise – former US National Security Advisor Richard Clarke says climate change is the greatest single risk not just to California, but the entire country.

Again and again I see climate change as the unpredictable ingredient that, when added to existing social, economic and political tensions, has the potential to force people and communities to move, and to ignite violence.

So as the United Nations Climate Change Conference opened yesterday, it is time to tell our leaders to act. To tell them that they must act with boldness, vision and determination. We must meet and exceed the goals laid out in the Paris Agreement. We must work together to achieve this – because already for millions it is too late, they are already on the move. For millions more the threat that they, too, will become climate refugees is a clear and present danger.      

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