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October 26, 2009

Global Warming Now: Climate Change Refugees

By: Julian Carmona, Intern for the Global Warming and Energy Team

Somalia has been fighting an 18-year civil war, leading to the displacement of large swaths of its population to refugee camps. Genocide in Darfur has produced millions of refugees and strained the resources that international peacekeeping forces can offer. If you turn on your television, open up a newspaper or read media online, there is a very good chance you will see a story about refugees in Africa displaced by warfare and conflict. The Geneva Convention in 1951 defined refugees as someone who has a “well founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, nationality, membership in a particular group or political opinion.”

But, a different type of displacement has been occurring that necessitates an update in the Geneva refugee definition. Farmers in rural Africa have been pouring into cities and refugee camps after losing their livestock and crops to the effects of climate change. Thousands of people in Africa, displaced by drought, famine and loss of livestock are moving into refugee camps, and straining the already tightened supply of basic necessities. Without legal recognition, climate refugees do not receive funding, and end up in disease-infested slums or camps that are not designed to accommodate them.

Where the definition and its expansion in 1967 fall short is in the identification of the push factors that might cause the citizen of one nation to become a refugee in another. Currently, the definition is based on persecution and discrimination such that the individual cannot live in his/her country of origin. The Geneva Convention document expands on the nuanced details of the definition, including a section identifying the “agents of persecution.” The description offered under this section points to the “authorities of a country” or “sections of the population that do not respect the standards established by the laws of the country concerned.” These statements refer to things like political discrimination and religious persecution. In these cases, people or groups are identified as the persecutors, and those being persecuted can be offered relocation assistance. How do you offer relocation assistance if the persecutor is something as universal as climate change?

There are also limitations to legally defining displaced victims of climate change as refugees. If a displaced individual cannot move back to his/her native country because drought has destroyed crops and killed livestock, providing assistance to move does not guarantee that drought, or any other affect of climate change will also affect the area they are relocated to. It also exacerbates some of the secondary effects of climate change in developing countries: overcrowding, hunger, disease and conflict.

The problem of climate refugees brings up a bigger point about the effects of global warming. In a recent post, I talked about the national security threats of global climate change. In reports by the Center for Naval Analysis (CNA) and the House Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, it was concluded that an unstable environment with millions of displaced peoples would be an easy breeding ground for threats to global security (terrorism, extremism, etc.). Displaced individuals would put strain on scarce resources causing competition that often leads to violence and the rise of illegitimate governments.

Unlike internal or even external conflict involving political instability or religious persecution, global climate change cannot be contained to a specific region or people. And, it can act as a precursor to the type of violence that has traditionally produced displaced individuals who are legally defined as refugees. To define this displaced population as refugees might allow them access to more funding and resources, but it does not solve the cause of their displacement.

For now, the world looks to Copenhagen for that solution. 

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