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Climate refugee

Climate refugee

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Environmental migrant refers to the people who are purportedly forced to migrate from or flee their home region due to sudden or long-term changes to their local environment, which is held to include increased droughts, desertification
Desertification is the degradation of land in drylands. Caused by a variety of factors, such as climate change and human activities, desertification is one of the most significant global environmental problems.-Definitions:...

, sea level rise, and disruption of seasonal weather
Weather is the state of the atmosphere, to the degree that it is hot or cold, wet or dry, calm or stormy, clear or cloudy. Most weather phenomena occur in the troposphere, just below the stratosphere. Weather refers, generally, to day-to-day temperature and precipitation activity, whereas climate...

 patterns such as monsoon
Monsoon is traditionally defined as a seasonal reversing wind accompanied by corresponding changes in precipitation, but is now used to describe seasonal changes in atmospheric circulation and precipitation associated with the asymmetric heating of land and sea...

s. This 'type' of migration has yet to be proven, in that it has yet to be defined in a way that allows such migrants to be distinguished from economic migrants or political refugees. The term 'environmental migrant' is used somewhat interchangeably with a range of similar terms, such as 'environmental refugee', 'climate refugee', 'climate migrant', although the distinction between these terms is contested. Despite problems of definition and an absence of clear-cut evidence, 'environmental migration' has increased in currency as an issue of concern in the 2000s as policy-makers, environmental and social scientists attempt to conceptualise the potential societal ramifications of climate change and general environmental degradation
Environmental degradation
Environmental degradation is the deterioration of the environment through depletion of resources such as air, water and soil; the destruction of ecosystems and the extinction of wildlife...


History of the concept

Beginning with the use of the phrase 'environmental refugee' by Lester Brown in 1976, there has been a proliferation in the use of the term, and later 'environmental migrant' and a cluster of similar categories, including "forced environmental migrant", "environmentally motivated migrant", "climate refugee", "climate change refugee", "environmentally displaced person (EDP)", "disaster refugee", "environmental displacee", "eco-refugee", "ecologically displaced person" and "environmental-refugee-to-be (ERTB)". The differences between these terms are less important than what they have in common: they all suggest that there is a determinable relationship between environmental drivers and human migration which is analytically useful, policy-relevant and possibly grounds for the expansion of refugee law
Refugee law
Refugee law is the branch of international law which deals with the rights and protection of refugees. It is related to, but distinct from, international human rights law and international humanitarian law, which deal respectively with human rights in general, and the conduct of war in...


The International Organisation for Migration proposes the following definition for environmental migrants:
"Environmental migrants are persons or groups of persons who, for compelling reasons of sudden or progressive changes in the environment that adversely affect their lives or living conditions, are obliged to leave their habitual homes, or choose to do so, either temporarily or permanently, and who move either within their country or abroad."

Predictions and attempts to enumerate 'environmental migrants/ refugees'

There have been a number of attempts over the decades to enumerate 'environmental migrants/ refugees'. Jodi Jacobson (1988) is cited as the first researcher to enumerate the issue, stating that there were already up to 10 million ‘Environmental Refugees’. Drawing on ‘worst case scenarios’ about sea-level rise, she argued that all forms of ‘Environmental Refugees’ would be six times as numerous as political refugees. (1988: 38). By 1989, Mustafa Tolba
Mostafa Kamal Tolba
Mostafa Kamal Tolba is an Egyptian scientist most famous for his 17-year tenure as Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme ....

, Executive Director of UNEP, was claiming that 'as many as 50 million people could become environmental refugees' if the world did not act to support sustainable development (Tolba 1989: 25). In 1990, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC 1990: 20) declared that the greatest single consequence of climate change could be migration, ‘with millions of people displaced by shoreline erosion, coastal flooding and severe drought’ (Warner & Laczko: 2008: 235). In the mid-1990s, Norman Myers became the most prominent proponent of this ‘maximalist’ school (Suhrke 1993), stating that there were 25 million environmental refugees in the mid-1990s, and claiming that this figure could double by 2010, with an upper limit of 200 million by 2050 (Myers 1997). Myers argued that the causes of environmental displacement would include desertification, lack of water, salination of irrigated lands and the depletion of bio-diversity. He also hypothesised that displacement would amount to 30m in China, 30m in India, 15m in Bangladesh, 14m in Egypt, 10m in other delta areas and coastal zones, 1m in island states, and with otherwise agriculturally displaced people totalling 50m (Myers & Kent 1995) by 2050. More recently, Myers has suggested that the figure by 2050 might be as high as 250 million (Christian Aid 2007: 6).
These claims have gained significant currency, with the most common claims being that 150-200 million people will be climate change refugees by 2050. Variations of this claim have been made in influential reports on climate change by the IPCC (Brown 2008: 11) and the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change (Stern et al. 2006: 3), as well as by NGOs such as Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace Germany (Jakobeit and Methmann 2007) and Christian Aid; and inter-governmental organisations such as the Council of Europe, UNESCO, IOM (Brown 2008) and UNHCR.

Despite these attempts at enumeration, there is in fact a dearth of empirical evidence to support the concept of 'environmental migration’. Norman Myers is perhaps the most widely cited, and the authority of his claims is often attributed to the fact that his chief contribution to the field (Myers & Kent 1995) used over 1000 sources. However, on visiting his bibliography, it becomes apparent that of these sources, the vast majority constitute nothing more than a rather desultory overview of environmental science that has no obvious connection with discussions of societal impacts or migration. Indeed, only 121 sources have even a remote connection to the broad themes of migration, refugee or population displacement. Only 25 of these sources discuss the migration-environment linkage explicitly, and it is worth noting that this number is little different than any other paper on ‘Environmental migration’, and consists chiefly of isolated case study material. Vikram Kolmannskog has stated that Myers’ work can be ‘criticized for being inconsistent, impossible to check and failing to take proper account of opportunities to adapt’ (2008: 9). Furthermore, Myers himself has acknowledged that his figures are based upon ‘heroic extrapolation’ (Brown 2008: 12). More generally, Black has argued that there is ‘surprisingly little scientific evidence’ that indicates that the world is ‘filling-up with environmental refugees’ (1998: 23). Indeed, Francois Gemenne has stated that: 'When it comes to predictions, figures are usually based on the number of people living in regions at risk, and not on the number of people actually expected to migrate. Estimates do not account for adaptation strategies [or] different levels of vulnerability' (Gemenne 2009: 159).


The International Organisation for Migration proposes three types of environmental migrants:
  • Environmental emergency migrants: people who flee temporarily due to an environmental disaster or sudden environmental event. (Examples: someone forced to leave due to hurricane, tsunami, earthquake, etc.)
  • Environmental forced migrants: people who have to leave due to deteriorating environmental conditions. (Example: someone forced to leave due to a slow deterioration of their environment such as deforestation, coastal deterioration, etc.)
  • Environmental motivated migrants also known as environmentally induced economic migrants: people who choose to leave to avoid possible future problems. (Example: someone who leaves due to declining crop productivity caused by desertification)

Conceptual problems and criticism

Much of the literature produced on 'environmental migration' assumes the nexus to be self-evident. The category is both emotive and commonsensical, and therefore has widespread currency in the media and among policy makers, non-social scientists and neo-Malthusianist social scientists. However, there is no evidence that the concept can be used to achieve generalisable truths. In brief, this is because the degree to which any given environmental factor is meaningful at the societal level
Climate change, industry and society
This article is about climate change, industry and society.-Vulnerability:The ability to predict how climate change may affect industry, settlement and society is limited by uncertainites about climate change and future developments in social and economic systems...

 - let alone to any specific aspect of human activity, such as migration - is entirely conditional on socio-economic and political contingencies. In other words, it is impossible to isolate a single environmental factor as an independent variable from which to deduce its impact on a particular (or general) form of social outcome in any way that will be generalisably useful; the relationship will be different depending on circumstance.

There has been little work that has bolstered the conceptual integrity of the concept. The concept lacks an agreed definition, and as a consequence, also lacks clear-cut evidence. Predictive models have therefore proved elusive, despite high-profile 'scoping studies', leading to a wide range of estimates, such as that conducted by the European Commission funded EACH-FOR project. Research conducted in areas of 'environmental degradation' which attempted to demonstrated a statistically significant correlation between migration and environmental degradation (including climate change) have so far lacked falsifiability
Falsifiability or refutability of an assertion, hypothesis or theory is the logical possibility that it can be contradicted by an observation or the outcome of a physical experiment...

, and have been marked by an absence of counterfactual evidence that has made it impossible to draw any generalisable conclusions from the findings.

Political and legal perspectives

The International Organization for Migration
International Organization for Migration
The International Organization for Migration is an intergovernmental organization. It was initially established in 1951 as the Intergovernmental Committee for European Migration to help resettle people displaced by World War II....

 (IOM) expects the scale of global migration to rise as a result of accelerated climate change. It therefore recommends policymakers around the world to take a proactive stance on the matter.

The Environmental Justice Foundation
Environmental Justice Foundation
The Environmental Justice Foundation is a [non-governmental organisation]] founded in 2001 by Steve Trent and Juliette Williams that promotes the non-violent resolution of human rights abuses and related environmental issues in the Global South...

 (EJF) has argued that the people who will be forced to move due to climate change currently have no adequate recognition in international law. The EJF contends that a new multilateral legal instrument is required to specifically address the needs of 'climate refugees' in order to confer protection to those fleeing environmental degradation and climate change. They have also asserted that additional funding is needed to enable developing countries to adapt to climate change. Sujatha Byravan
Sujatha Byravan
Sujatha Byravan is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Development Finance in IFMR where the focus of her work is on adaptation to global warming. Her interests are in the broad areas of science, technology and development and are grounded in her technical background and education in the biological...

 and Sudhir Chella Rajan have argued for the use of the term 'climate exiles' and for international agreements to provide them political and legal rights, including citizenship in other countries, bearing in mind those countries' responsibilities and capabilities.

In some cases, climate change may lead to conflict arising between countries that as a result of flooding or other conditions produce a large number of refugees, and bordering countries that build fences to keep out these refugees. The Bangladesh - India border is largely separated via a fence, and case studies suggest the possibility of violent conflict arising due to people fleeing from areas suffering from destruction of arable land
Arable land
In geography and agriculture, arable land is land that can be used for growing crops. It includes all land under temporary crops , temporary meadows for mowing or pasture, land under market and kitchen gardens and land temporarily fallow...

. Current migration has already resulted in low-scale conflicts.

Popular culture

Despite concerns regarding its capacity to say anything meaningful about the complex relationship between environmental drivers and human migration, the notion of 'environmental migrant', and particularly 'climate refugee', has gained traction in popular culture. A documentary entitled Climate Refugees has been released, which engages uncritically with the neo-malthusian understandings of the climate change-migration nexus. "Climate Refugees" is an Official Selection for the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.

Since 2007, German artist Hermann Josef Hack
Hermann Josef Hack
Hermann Josef Hack, , is a German artist, founder of the Global Brainstorming Project , a platform to provide communication of researchers, scientists with the general public by the means of art...

 has shown his World Climate Refugee Camp in the centers of various European cities. The model camp, made of roughly 1000 miniature tents, is a public art intervention that depicts the social impacts of climate change.

See also

  • United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
    United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
    The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees , also known as The UN Refugee Agency is a United Nations agency mandated to protect and support refugees at the request of a government or the UN itself and assists in their voluntary repatriation, local integration or resettlement to...

  • Water crisis
    Water crisis
    Water crisis is a general term used to describe a situation where the available water within a region is less than the region's demand. The term has been used to describe the availability of potable water in a variety of regions by the United Nations and other world organizations...

  • Displaced person
    Displaced person
    A displaced person is a person who has been forced to leave his or her native place, a phenomenon known as forced migration.- Origin of term :...

  • Climate change
    Climate change
    Climate change is a significant and lasting change in the statistical distribution of weather patterns over periods ranging from decades to millions of years. It may be a change in average weather conditions or the distribution of events around that average...

  • Climate change, industry and society
    Climate change, industry and society
    This article is about climate change, industry and society.-Vulnerability:The ability to predict how climate change may affect industry, settlement and society is limited by uncertainites about climate change and future developments in social and economic systems...

  • Forced migration
    Forced migration
    Forced migration refers to the coerced movement of a person or persons away from their home or home region...

  • Small Island Developing States
    Small Island Developing States
    Small Island Developing States are low-lying coastal countries that tend to share similar sustainable development challenges, including small but growing populations, limited resources, remoteness, susceptibility to natural disasters, vulnerability to external shocks, excessive dependence on...

  • The Clash of Civilizations
  • Alliance of Small Island States
    Alliance of Small Island States
    Alliance of Small Island States is an intergovernmental organization of low-lying coastal and small Island countries. Established in 1990, the main purpose of the alliance is to consolidate the voices of Small Island Developing States to address global warming...

  • Kiribati
    Kiribati , officially the Republic of Kiribati, is an island nation located in the central tropical Pacific Ocean. The permanent population exceeds just over 100,000 , and is composed of 32 atolls and one raised coral island, dispersed over 3.5 million square kilometres, straddling the...

     (President of Kiribati
    President of Kiribati
    The President of Kiribati is the head of state and head of government of Kiribati.Following a general election, by which citizens elect the members of the House of Assembly, members select from their midst "not less than 3 nor more than 4 candidates" for the presidency. No other person may stand...

     Anote Tong
    Anote Tong
    Anote Tong is an I-Kiribati politician with Chinese heritage. He is the current President of Kiribati. He won the election in July 2003 with a slim plurality of votes cast against his brother, Dr. Harry Tong and the private lawyer Banuera Berina...

  • The Maldives
    The Maldives , , officially Republic of Maldives , also referred to as the Maldive Islands, is an island nation in the Indian Ocean formed by a double chain of twenty-six atolls oriented north-south off India's Lakshadweep islands, between Minicoy Island and...

     (President of the Maldives
    President of the Maldives
    The President of the Maldives is the Head of State and Head of Government and first citizen of the Republic of Maldives and the Supreme Commander of the Maldivian armed forces.The current President of the Republic of Maldives is Mohamed Nasheed....

     Mohamed Nasheed
    Mohamed Nasheed
    Mohamed Nasheed is a Maldivian politician. He is the current President of the Maldives. He is the founder of the Maldivian Democratic Party and was its presidential candidate in the October 2008 presidential election, defeating long-time President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom in a second round of voting...


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