Right now, somewhere in the world, a person is struggling with the decision to leave their home in search for safety and a better life. Right now, a family in a refugee camp is having trouble adapting to their new normal. Right now, someone is desperate because they have just been denied the asylum they were seeking.
The world is witnessing the highest levels of displacement on record, with over 65 million people having been forced from home, mostly due to conflict and persecution. At the international level, leaders are pressured to deal with a migration crisis that is putting into question the definition of national boundaries and globalization.
This number will just keep growing once we take into consideration climate refugees or environmental migrants —people forced to resettle due to the effects of climate change. The threat is very real for islands like Maldives, which are already considering where to relocate their citizens when rising sea levels claim their homes. Options include purchasing land elsewhere and investing in building new artificial islands.
However, the danger is not just in rising sea levels submerging coastal cities and islands. Since 2008, an annual average of 21.5 million people have been forcibly displaced due to climate-related events, such as floods, wildfire and extreme temperatures. Let’s see some Latin American examples of events that could force populations to relocate because of climate change:
- Heat and drought are forcing cities to further drain underground aquifers to satisfy the demand for water, putting a burden on the infrastructure of places such as Mexico City, causing parts of the city to collapse.
- In Brazil, landslides and dry areas are causing a significant proportion of the population to move from northeastern Brazil to Rio de Janeiro.
- Glaciers are melting in Peru and Bolivia, affecting water availability and therefore local agricultural practices leading to a further migration.
Preventive measures to limit the effects of climate change on vulnerable populations, such as investing in sustainable infrastructure and adopting climate-smart farming practices, are important and can impact the scale of the crisis in the future. However, adaptation to climate change can be costly and slow so timely action is crucial.
In addition, we still need to think about ways to address the needs of those that will inevitably see their livelihoods affected by the changes in the Earth’s temperature. People displaced by climate change are not currently classified as refugees under the 1951 Convention and therefore lack international protection. Moreover, there is no agency or facility carrying out internationally coordinated efforts devoted to climate-induced displacement.
Marine Franck of the Advisory Group on Climate Change and Human Mobility couldn’t have said it better: “Climate-related displacement is not a future phenomenon. It is a reality; it is already a global concern.” Are we going to wait until people have lost their homes and livelihoods to come up with solutions to this impending problem? It is time to make this topic a priority in national, subnational and international agendas and prepare ourselves with policies that can minimize the consequences for climate refugees.