Climate Refugees

The Human Toll of Global Warming

Climate change could create hundreds of millions of refugees in the next 50 years, but there are solutions that we can act on now.

The 40,000 people displaced by this week’s typhoon in the Philippines are only the latest example of necessary relocation due to natural disasters. Greenhouse gas emissions are changing the Earth’s climate, which causes natural disasters to grow more severe and more frequent, often creating a new wave of refugees fleeing climate change.

The number of people affected is uncertain since these “climate refugees” are not granted official refugee status under the Geneva Convention, and the United Nations therefore keeps no central tally. According to the International Federation of Red Cross, however, climate change disasters are currently a bigger cause of population displacement than war and persecution. Estimates of climate refugees currently range from 25 to 50 million, compared to the official refugee population of 20.8 million.

Rising sea levels, increasing desertification, weather-induced flooding, and other environmental changes, will likely displace many more hundreds of millions of people.

Accidents of geography have caused the countries least able to prevent climate change to become the most vulnerable to its earliest effects. Developing countries bear minimal responsibility for climate change because they have little industry and produce relatively small amounts pollution. But their populations—often the poorest of the world’s poor—are more likely to occupy dangerous locations, such as coast lines, flood plains, steep slopes, and settlements of flimsy shanty homes. The governments of these poor countries therefore carry the largest burden associated with climate refugees though they are already failing to meet the basic needs of their citizens and are ill-equipped to recover from disasters.

We can already see the effects that global warming has on some island nations. The inhabitants of the Carteret Islands were the first climate refugees forced to relocate due to sea level rise attributed to global warming. The Papua New Guinean government authorized a total evacuation of the islands in 2005—the evacuation is expected to be complete by 2007. Estimates show that by 2015 Carteret will be largely submerged and entirely uninhabitable.

Floods and other weather-related disasters have also caused nearly 10 million people to migrate from Bangladesh to India over the past two decades, creating immense population pressures. A one-meter rise in sea level—a widely predicted consequence of global warming due to an increase in the average temperatures by 2.5 to 10.4 degrees Fahrenheit over the next 40-50 years—will, in turn, inundate three million hectares in Bangladesh, and displace another 15–20 million people.

The climate refugee problem will intensify as global warming increases, potentially yielding between 150 million and 200 million refugees as early as 2010. Despite the scale of the problem, no one is really addressing the needs of these refugees, and much of the discussion about them has been limited to defining their official legal status—whether they should be officially classified as refugees or not.

We must act now to create an action plan that addresses the potentially devastating human toll of global warming. Climate refugees already exist and it is the moral imperative of the international community to try to ameliorate their situation. A formal extension of refugee status will be an important first step for providing a baseline of international assistance.

Inaction in the face of mounting evidence could cost billions of dollars and many innocent lives. Economist Sir Nicholas Stern released a report last month showing that global warming could shrink the global economy by 20 percent. But taking action now to curb climate change would cost just one percent of global gross domestic product and ultimately give countries a huge return on their investments through the creation of new technologies, industries, and jobs.

The United States, as the largest contributor to global warming (accounting for 25 percent of the world’s carbon pollution), has a moral responsibility to lead the global effort to curb this phenomenon. The United States can use its economic and technical strength to transform this daunting challenge into an opportunity for innovation.

The United States must implement a bold program that both advances emerging technologies and makes greater use of existing alternative energy resources. With support from the federal government, biofuels can have a tremendous positive impact on curbing our need for oil and ameliorating the global pollution that threatens the world’s most vulnerable people.

The federal government should also provide greater financial and technical assistance to help vulnerable countries prepare for climate change. Global funding to help poor countries adapt to climate change was only $0.02 billion in 2005, compared to $80 billion in subsidies to oil companies.

The U.S. must also implement a Plan for Global Warming Preparedness, which would include mapping out vulnerabilities via a National Global Warming Community Impact Assessment, and create state-level global warming preparedness plans.

The United States can make a great positive impact on the global climate by investing in new technologies, providing financial assistance to help prepare poorer nations, and mapping out a national preparedness plan. These three different approaches will help curtail global warming and diminish the growing population of climate refugees. Inaction is an option we can no longer afford.

For more information on renewable fuels and climate change, check out:

Teresita Perez is a Research Associate at the Center for American Progress.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.