Refugees and Climate Change: An Introduction

Though the subject of climate change has been a controversial one for many years, it is affecting individuals around the world in very real ways. Those who are forced to flee their homes and communities and whose livelihoods are threatened by environmental changes that may be attributed to climate change are known as climate change refugees. Periodically over the next few months I will be addressing the issue of refugees and climate change by considering statistics, case studies, policy and other potential solutions, and ways that people of faith can (and should) respond to this unique kind of refugee.

Climate Change

First, let’s address the elephant in the room: what do I mean when I say “climate change”? The vast majority of my readers are conservative Christians and many of you may think climate change and global warming are just a bunch of melarkey.  If that’s the case, my intention is not to change your mind or convince you otherwise. Instead, my goal is to explain how weather changes are drastically affecting vulnerable populations around the world (whether those changes are the result of widespread global warming or something else is up to you to decide). In this series on refugees and climate change I want the focus to be on the needs of people, but in order to effectively address those needs, we must consider the role of climate change in their situations.

How Climate Change Affects People

There are two main ways in which communities are affected by climate change. The first, and perhaps the most obvious, is the occurrence of natural disasters. Tsunamis, earthquakes, landslides, flooding, hurricanes, tornados, and other natural disasters damage countless homes and communities every year and leave thousands of people without shelter, food, water, and medical care. It can take months, and sometimes years, for towns and homes to be rebuilt and in some extreme cases the damage done is severe enough that rebuilding in the same area is impossible.

The second way in which communities are affected by climate change is far more subtle and may take years, or even decades, to notice. Those who are affected by the changes are usually the first to realize the impact it may have on their livelihoods or way of life. These situations often go unaddressed because of the controversial nature of climate change and the fact that disaster relief funds are almost exclusively used in the situations mentioned above.

There are multiple indisputable examples of climate refugees and communities that may be lost to climate change around the world. Native American communities in Alaska, communities who have lived in the same place for centuries, are some of the first Americans to experience the long-term effects of climate change. In a short handful of years some small villages will no longer be safe to live in due to rising sea levels, flooding, and erosion. However, most families don’t want to leave the places their ancestors have lived for so long and are staying as long as they possibly can.

Here are some additional examples of climate refugees that you might be interested in exploring.

Climate “Refugees”

Individuals who have been forced to leave their homes and communities due to the various effects of climate change have come to be known as climate refugees. However, under international law these individuals don’t legally qualify as refugees at all. The legal definition of a refugee is spelled out in the 1951 Refugee Convention and applies to those who have been persecuted because of their “race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.” While this definition can be applied to victims of war like the vast majority of Syrian refugees, it cannot apply to those displaced due to climate change or natural disasters.

This means that as the number of individuals around the world who are displaced by climate change increases, there will be no system in place to effectively address their needs. Some forced migration scholars and policymakers are seeking to amend the refugee definition to include climate refugees, but support from the international community has been slow to come. The controversial nature of climate change also serves to complicate things and ultimately means that those who need assistance will have to wait much longer to get it.

In the next installment of this series I will address specific policies that are in the works, both internationally and in the US. I will also highlight some practical ways that you can make a difference for those experiencing the effects of climate change.