An environmental refugee is an individual who is displaced from their homeland because of the degradation of that environment, making it less hospitable for people. China, for example, may experience an environmental refugee problem in the near future because of the expansion of its Gobi desert into currently populated areas.
The threat of global warming is predicted to cause perhaps 50 million to 1 billion environmental refugees. With the polar ice caps melting and the sea levels rising, there is a very real possibility that some countries that have very low elevation could end up being swallowed up by the sea, resulting in the people of that country to have to find homes in other parts of the world. The situation faced by the people who live on the island of Tuvalu in the South Pacific, for instance, is exactly the one described above. In fact, because of this very real threat, the government of New Zealand has agreed to take the island’s people as refugees should their country be swamped by the ocean. Places like Bangladesh and Louisiana face similar problems, since these areas are both losing land every year because of encroaching sea levels. This will result in less land overall for the world’s people to live on, creating a potentially very serious environmental refugee crisis.
Global warming is also likely to make the warm regions of the globe more inhospitable, possibly prompting an exodus from these areas. Physicians in the American South, for instance, have noticed an increase in both the length and severity of seasonal allergies. It is possible this development is due to global warming, because with the warmer temperatures coming earlier and lasting for longer periods of time, trees and plants are pollinating earlier and increasing the exposure of the populace to allergens. If warming trends continue in this part of the world, people may experience allergic attacks so severe that they cannot live in the area anymore. These severe allergies are likely to cause an environmental refugee problem.
Global warming may also cause a loss of biodiversity among both plants and animals, because certain species cannot live in warm temperatures. This reduction in biodiversity is likely to lead to desertification, drought, and soil erosion. As desertification spreads, the people who live nearby will have to relocate, thus creating an environmental refugee swelling.
In addition, it is possible that global warming will lead to the spreading of dangerous, once-isolated diseases, such as malaria and West Nile virus. The warmer temperatures will give mosquitoes more territory in which they can survive, and more people on whom they can feed. As the affected areas become larger, in order to avoid being stricken with these contagions, people are likely to contribute to a growing environmental refugee problem when they leave these regions for safer areas.
Lastly, in the most vulnerable areas, it is likely global warming will lead to contamination of the food and water supply. Increased flooding from rising sea levels is likely to wash contaminants into the available crops. If less food is available for the amount of people living in a specific place, at least some of those people will leave for other parts of the world and perpetuate the environmental refugee crisis.
Overall, these conditions are alarming. If there are massive parts of the planet that become less hospitable for people, it means that fewer people can live in those areas. As a result, the areas that are hospitable will become more crowded, resulting in greater competition for food and resources among the population. An environmental refugee crisis appears to be just around the corner in the decades to come.