Climate Refugees: A Human Cost of Global Warming

At 70, Hatem Ali was left homeless and broke when a cyclone hit his hometown of Barguna, Bangladesh.  (Photo credit: C├╝brik via Flickr)

Rezaul Karim Chowdhury is from Kutubdia, a Bangladeshi island in the Bay of Bengal. When Chowdhury was younger, the palm-dotted tropical island spanned 65 square kilometers, but rising sea levels and erosion have since shrunk it by more than half, to only 25 square kilometers. With their land and homes submerged, more than 40,000 residents of Kutubdia have fled to sandbars near the mainland town of Coxsbazar, where they endure slum conditions and the constant threat of eviction. Chowdhury manages a development organization on Kutubdia, and although he wishes he could help the island’s displaced people, he is forced to ignore their pleas, as he can offer no solution.

As climate change intensifies, it will continue to displace vulnerable peoples, like those in Kutubdia, as sea levels rise and as extreme weather brings devastating floods, droughts, and other disasters. The London-based Environmental Justice Foundation reports that around 26 million people worldwide have already had to move due to the effects of climate change, a figure that could grow to 150 million by 2050. The group estimates that as many as 500 to 600 million people—nearly 10 percent of the world’s population—are at risk from displacement.

Villages in the Arctic are facing the effects of thawing permafrost, among other challenges. In Newtok, on Alaska’s western coast, the melting permafrost and rising sea expose the village to sanitation problems as local sewage facilities are damaged and the previously frozen earth becomes unstable, causing houses to collapse. Additionally, the village’s water supply is in danger of being contaminated by seawater. In the face of these dramatic challenges, the village is preparing for the future and has identified a relocation site nine miles south. But a lack of funding and coordination has made relocation and adaptation efforts difficult.

The Environmental Justice Foundation reports that around 26 million people worldwide have already had to move due to the effects of climate change.

Extreme weather, encroaching seas, and desertification are the leading drivers behind the surge in “climate refugees” worldwide, commonly defined as those who flee their homes and ways of life due to factors related to climate change.

In Mongolia, an estimated quarter of the population has fled to shanty towns near the urban center of Ulan Bator to find work, as residents’ traditional nomadic existence is threatened by long, cold winters and desertification caused by climate change and overgrazing. Throughout Asia and Africa, millions of livestock have died in extremely harsh winters and dry summers. In the planet’s far northerly regions, reindeer herders are encumbered by swampy land and changing migration patterns due to altered freezing and thawing cycles.

As climate change takes its toll around the world, global society is faced with the question of how to adapt to changing conditions, and how to assist climate refugees. Societies must also address issues of managing and allocating limited land and other resources as the human population increases, driving demand ever upward.

The border between India and Bangladesh, for example, is already an area of conflict, and the Indian government recently erected a 3,000 kilometer fence to keep climate refugees from migrating to India. While India argues that it does not have the capacity to accept these immigrants, Bangladeshis view India as one of their only refuges to escape the rising seas. Negotiations will be necessary to ensure that plans are in place for this large-scale movement of displaced people.

As more people become climate refugees, the world must provide humanitarian aid and legal protection to these people, who had little role in contributing to the problem in the first place. One of the tragedies of climate change is that impoverished and disenfranchised people will bear the consequences of actions executed by wealthy nations. Therefore, it is the responsibility of developed nations to mitigate the effects of climate change as much as possible.

Alison Singer | Sustainable Prosperity | July 30, 2012

Homepage image: Some experts predict that by 2050, climate change will have displaced 150 million people worldwide.  (Photo credit: Asian Development Bank)

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