Imagine being forced to leave your home as a result of an environmental disaster

Since 2008, over 24 million people have been displaced from their homes by natural and environmental disasters, and experts say that number is expected to grow. According to reports by the United Nations, there may be as many as 200 million ‘climate-displaced’ people worldwide by the year 2050.

Despite the vast number of people driven from their homes by storms, floods and other weather-related occurences, those who become displaced by these types of disasters aren’t actually considered refugees. This is because the 1951 Refugee Convention only protects those ‘fleeing war and persecution’.

Thankfully, research in recent years has acknowledged that environmental migration due to climate change is real, and a crisis we should all be aware of.

What is a “climate refugee”?

climate refugeePhoto by Misbahul Aulia on UnsplashWhile the term “climate refugee” may not have a formal definition, knowing what the term entails can help us better understand how communities are affected and why this matters to the rest of the world.

Sometimes referred to as “environmental migrants,” a climate refugee is anyone who has been forced to leave their home because of an environmental disaster. Often, the world’s poorest and most vulnerable communities are most at risk and suffer the greatest impact.

How is climate change a factor?

A report by the World Meteorological Organization released in April says the number of “climate-displaced” individuals is already rising, with an average of 23 million climate refugees a year since 2010, and nearly 10 million recorded in the first six months of last year.

Experts agree that climate change is exacerbating this issue. Scientists predict that rising sea levels and the resulting extreme environmental disasters will make small island nations in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, like the Maldives and Tuvalu, uninhabitable, "creating climate-change refugees on a scale never before seen in modern history."

The impacts of climate change on people in vulnerable areas can be hard to notice until it’s too late and communities have already been displaced. This is perhaps one of the reasons governments and organizations have had a difficult time tackling this crisis effectively. But over the years, scientists have come to understand the numerous, gradual ways climate change has been a factor.

For one, not only do rising sea levels threaten to submerge low-lying coastal communities, but the sea water can also contaminate fresh water sources and increase soil salinity. This harms crops and food staples, making it "virtually impossible" to grow food in these areas.

Dr. Christie Klimas, a professor of Environmental Science and Studies at DePaul University, notes how climate change can particularly increase problems in areas already suffering from food shortages. Not only can it affect yields, it can also change rainfall patterns by creating storm surges that are less than ideal for growing crops. When food becomes scarce, populations will be pushed out.

In other words, climate change will cause population movements by making certain parts of the world "much less viable places to live," by causing food and water supplies to become more unreliable and "increasing the frequency and severity of floods and storms."New OrleansPhoto by John Middelkoop on Unsplash

Why should we care?

2020 was recorded as the warmest year on record. Every day, the most vulnerable people around the world are forced from their homes due to the impacts of climate change, and communities that contribute the least to global warming are the ones most affected. As experts note, this crisis is more than a climate change issue, it’s also a human rights issue.

International advocacy organization Global Citizen reminds us best: “Climate change isn’t this remote thing that scientists will simply work out. It’s a problem of global scale—and we all need to pay attention to the human costs that climate change creates.”