They’re Not Refugees: The Unprotected People Displaced by Climate Change

Photo from UNHCR.

The following article was written by one of our website writers, Denea Bascombe.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR) is well aware that with climate change increasing negative environmental outcomes, such as natural disasters, certain areas might be rendered uninhabitable. This will mean “a conscious move to another place to survive”. They highlight the potential for such moves to cause conflict with communities that then become overcrowded, and experience heightened competition for scarce resources. UNHCR lists primary problems as scarce natural resources becoming even more limited, the inability of crops and livestock to survive in the new climates, and increased challenges of food security. However, people displaced by such issues might not qualify as refugees, and thus not receive the protection or aid that they need. The Advisory Group on Climate Change and Human Mobility illustrates the urgency of such issues, highlighting that people are twice as likely to be displaced by a natural disaster in 2015 as they were in the 1970s. It proposes a resiliency solution which relies on effective policy development for a variety of scenarios, such as advising on protective measures to vulnerable populations, creating displacement risk scenarios for different levels of global warming, and developing plans for safe evacuations, among many other proposals. These are largely high-level programs and policies geared towards the most at-risk populations.

This is because UNHCR is primarily concerned with the people who are “concentrated in the most vulnerable areas around the world”. They face major problems not just with poor infrastructure and preventative measures, but also with problems associated with a lack of resources to migrate in the event their community becomes uninhabitable. Their concern is due to “more and more people [becoming] vulnerable to disasters and climate change, with one person displaced every second, and the majority of the almost 60 million people displaced around the world today situated in so-called ‘climate change hotspots’”. UNHCR makes it clear that this will only make bad situations worse by stating “climate change will force people into increasing poverty and displacement, exacerbating the factors that lead to conflict, rendering both the humanitarian needs and responses in such situations even more complex”. UNHCR has planned relocations of communities that are vulnerable to natural disasters and climate change, and supports increased protection of such displaced peoples.

Yet even outside of the most vulnerable communities in our world, nations from the Global North are struggling to include environmental refugees and environmental justice as primary items on national policy agendas. This should make us ask: If communities and countries who are, arguably, well-equipped to deal with the effects of human migration are struggling to resolve existing issues and plan ahead, what does this mean for the world’s most vulnerable populations? Arguments exist for the need for both high-level, intergovernmental and federal policy, and low-level, municipality-based solutions. It becomes evident that given the wide range of consequences of climate change and ensuing human migration, some combination of both might be the only way to cover all possible outcomes.

Sustainability Policy: Hastening the transition to a cleaner economy.

The book Sustainability Policy illustrates that solutions lie not only in large-scale policy planning, but arguably in communities where at-risk populations might migrate to. It highlights that “as climate change begins to take its toll, climate refugees could flood into cities, increasing the strain on local infrastructure”. It explains that cities have the power to mitigate such issues as they “can influence climate change mitigation and adaptation through their responsibilities over land use zoning, transportation, natural resources management, buildings, and waste and water services”. Further, it notes that in the United States, cities have the flexibility to “take greater risks in designing policies and strategies than the federal government” due to decreased political polarization, and the ability to match policy to specific, localized needs. The benefits of low-level policy planning are evident.

That being said, federal governments of individual nations need to put environmental justice on the policy agenda. David Boyd explains that Canada is behind many countries, including the United States, in its efforts to mitigate and resolve occurrences of environmental injustice. He highlights that this isn’t for lack of issues of displacement within the nation, stating that there are “intolerable” levels of pollution for some Alberta ranching and farming families who have already had to leave their homes. In large part, this is due to fracking and other activities that are supported by local and federal governments. This creates a new concern: what happens when local and federal governments are not aligned with suffering communities in the fight for environmental justice? What happens if local and federal policies do not align; for example, if federal policy supports activities with negative environmental outcomes, and municipal needs require it to stop?

There are so many questions surrounding what the outcomes might be when land becomes uninhabitable and people are forced to migrate into nearby communities. These questions only become more urgent and intimidating when considering the world’s most vulnerable populations. But is there an interplay between different communities that has not yet been explored? Can solutions for communities in the Global North be used as a template for communities in the Global South? If some of the most difficult dilemmas can be worked through in wealthier nations before the worst effects of climate change and climate refugees are seen, perhaps this will save some of the most vulnerable populations from starting at square one.

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