The idea that climate change is causing migration and displacement is entering the mainstream, but experts have warned against using the term “climate refugees” to describe what we’re seeing in small islands, coastal regions, and even conflict zones like Syria.
Geoff Dabelko’s 2007 post on climate change and migration was an early and important clarification of this emerging phenomenon. He noted that the term “refugee” is problematic because of limitations under international law. He also noted that migration is multi-causal. In fact, the numerous triggers that collide to spur an individual’s decision to migrate make it difficult to peg his or her movement to climate change. That difficulty also means that deriving a number for climate migrants remains elusive. Almost 10 years later, these cautionary words are still relevant.
However, I would argue there are migration and displacement scenarios that are a bit more straightforward now, that beg concerted effort from the policy community, and that underscore the importance of recognizing climate change as a unique, unprecedented, and increasingly formidable trigger.
In their comprehensive policy paper, Protecting People Crossing Borders in the Context of Climate Change, Walter Kälin and Nina Schrepfer identify five scenarios in which climate change may trigger population movements. They are:
1. Sudden onset disasters, such as flooding or storms;
2. Slow-onset degradation, such as rising sea levels and salinization of freshwater and arable land;
3. The “special case” of slow-onset disasters, specifically the impact of rising seas on low-lying small-island states;
4. Governments prohibiting areas for human habituation as they become high risk;
5. Violence, armed conflict, or unrest over dwindling resources that seriously disturbs public order and triggers migration.
Scenarios three and four are particularly relevant given current events. News of the seemingly inevitable demise of atoll nations like Kiribati and the planned relocation of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe of Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana have highlighted the impacts of climate change on island and coastal communities in the present tense. Sea-level rise and coastal flooding that compromise entire communities is not a problem we can relegate to future generations; it is happening now.
This is not to say “climate refugees” is an appropriate way to describe these people. There is still no legal basis behind the term, no protections owed by governments, and a real danger of giving the wrong impression about the situations they face as opposed to the millions displaced by war and persecution in the Middle East and East Africa, for example (though elements of this may evince scenario five). It is important to note that many residents of threatened islands in fact eschew the “refugee” categorization and resist the inevitability of losing their lands, home to the bones of their ancestors and the birthplace of the next generation.