As I welcome the new year, I say a silent prayer of gratitude for all that I have. The year 2016 has passed without threats on the life of my family and friends. We often take for granted all that we have around us. From the democracy of a vibrant country, to the fact that we have a country that we can live in. I say this in the context of a whole new syndrome that the world is now trying to face – the syndrome of climate refugees.
Extreme weather events brought about by climate change, as a result of global warming caused by increased burning of fossil fuels, is becoming a problem, that it is now catching the attention of academics, policy makers and politicians across the world. Consider this: The small Pacific island nation of Kiribati, which is threatened by rising oceans, has become the first country on earth to buy land in another country for their citizens – climate refugees. Kiribati's president, Anote Tong, pointed out that, based on scientific predictions of sea level rise, the coral atolls that make up his homeland will be underwater within a century. "We have nowhere else to go," Tong said in an interview. "We already have communities which have had to relocate because what was their home was no longer there.
And so we are feeling impacts now already." Tong's government bought land in Fiji, to house its refugees.
In 2016, climate and weather-related disasters were responsible for displacement of 23.5 million people which is 97% of all disaster-related displacements. Flood disasters tend to make up the majority of climate and weather-related displacements each year. In 2016, however, storms caused 12.9 million displacements worldwide – 55% of all weather-related disasters – by triggering mass displacement of populations living in exposed and vulnerable coastal areas. Seven of the 10 largest displacement events of 2016 were storm related. The number of new climate and weather-related disaster displacements in 2016 was above the annual average since 2008 of 21.7 million.
New research, published in Science magazine, suggests that weather shocks are spurring people to seek asylum in Europe. The researchers found that over a 15-year period, asylum applications in Europe increased along with “hotter-than-normal temperatures” in the countries where the asylum seekers had come from.
They predict that many more people will seek asylum in Europe as temperatures in their home countries are projected to rise. The paper, by Anouch Missirian and Wolfram Schlenker, looks at weather patterns in the countries of origin for asylum applicants between 2000 and 2014. It found that, ” weather shocks on agricultural regions in 103 countries around the globe directly influence emigration” to Europe. “Part of the flow,” said Dr. Schlenker, a professor at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University and a co-author of the study, “we can explain by what happens to the weather in the source country.”
The challenge facing the world is this. The 1951 UN Refugee Convention grants refugee status to those fleeing persecution, wars, and conflicts, but does not include climate change as a reason to seek asylum. So refugees of climate change have literally no refuge. Some countries, like New Zealand are proposing a special refugee visa for Pacific Islanders who are forced to migrate because of rising sea levels. "We want to start a dialogue with the Pacific Island countries about this notion of migrating with dignity," said climate minister James Shaw, leader of New Zealand's Green Party.
Some work has already stared in the academic world. Michael W. Doyle, a Columbia professor and a group of academics and advocates have spent the last two years proposing an entirely new treaty with new categories to cover those who are forcibly displaced, including by the ravages of climate change. We do not expect the new treaty to be embraced anytime soon, but these conversations should start as record numbers of people leave their home countries and end up displaced in others, often without legal status.
Many of us take a lot for granted, our land, our country for granted. We do not even contemplate the issues of refugees, leave alone climate refugees! But the time has come, for all of us to give energy to these conversations, and to do our bit to take these conversations to the next level.