Rising sea levels, increasing desertification, weather-induced flooding, and other by-products of global warming have already created an estimated 25 to 50 million climate refugees. Center for American Progress Research Associate Teresita Perez reported on this issue in December, and argued that in order to tackle this issue that United Nations and governments worldwide must grant formal refugee status to environmental refugees.
The United Nations-Sigma XI Scientific Expert Group on Climate Change follows in her footsteps with a comprehensive report on climate change that urges international relief organizations and the United Nations to define a new category of “environmental refugee” in order to better document the number of people who are being forced from their homes and better anticipate the support that they will need.
Environmental refugees are not currently granted official refugee status under the Geneva Convention, which means that no official tally is kept by the United Nations. Yet the International Federation of Red Cross claims that climate change disasters are currently a bigger cause of population displacement than war and persecution. And the numbers will only intensify as global warming increases.
Sixty million people lived at elevations of three feet above sea level or less in 1995, and since then the coastal population has grown at twice the average rate of the global population. The predicted rise in sea level could displace all 60 million of these people, as well as the 215 million more people who live within 15 feet of sea level.
Floods, mudslides, droughts, coastal erosion, and other disasters linked to global warming will add millions more. Governments worldwide may need to cope with as many as 50 million displaced persons as early as 2010.
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 Center for American Progress released a report earlier this year that describes how we can promote rural energy in a way that will reverse the effects of global warming, confront global poverty, promote energy security, and boost the American economy.
The swift implementation of an aggressive cap-and-trade program is critical to this effort. Reversing the effects of global warming can be implemented in a way that will minimize long-term consumer costs by employing tried-and-true market mechanisms.
We must all work together to keep the earth’s temperature from rising more than 3.6°F. This includes investing in new, sustainable energy options and using federal regulations and incentives to reduce emissions. But we must also prepare ourselves for the effects to the environment and population if climate change continues to go unchecked. Inaction is an option we can no longer afford.
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