climate_refugees_0

THOSE MEETING IN THE ONGOING SESSIONS at the climate change summit in Paris have a number of impending tragedies hanging over their heads. They talk in urgent terms about floods, drought, heat, cold, ocean currents, wind directions, and desertification, but the ultimate concern they face in the next few decades is really about people – millions and millions of them. Worst of all, global leaders still don’t know how to handle the coming onslaught.

We’d be foolish think this will be a future phenomenon. Already a few million such souls are migrating over the earth in search of sustainability and security. It’s just that their numbers are about to get a whole lot bigger … and troubling.

We talked about this before, but it bears repeating. The legal classification of refugees comprises those forced to flee to another country because of conflict or persecution. This is the traditional definition of “refugees” as we know it and they have a whole terminology built around them: quotas, at risk, attacked, insecurity. The United Nations also succeeded in getting the nations of the world to agree on a kind of legal architecture for these individuals and families that has operated for decades.

But climate change refugees aren’t protected by any such privileges. Since they had to leave their ancestral homes because the wells dried up, the rains stopped coming, their region flooded, or the migrating herds moved away, they fall through the gaps of the international legal framework. Worse, there is no clear legal consensus emerging yet as to their status. And perhaps the greatest tragedy of all is that those gathering in Paris in recent days won’t even consider ways to grant protections, status, and rights to those on the move because of the incursions of environmental degradation.

Surely we can’t be surprised at the condition of such refugees. They have lived on the edge of extinction for years, hoping that weather patterns would change to more historic norms. But at last there is no water. Finally their rising sea levels have eradicated their homes and land. No nutrients remain in the soil for crops. The end has come for them in the current place and all that is left is to wander, sometimes for thousands of miles by foot, auto, boat, even just swimming.

While experts have mulled over the intricacies of such refugees for decades, protection and resources will be hard to come by unless they receive legal classification. Leaders thought they had covered all of that back in the 1950s, when the United Nations defined a refugee as one forced to flee because of persecution for a number of causes – religion, ethnicity, race, even owned land. It just didn’t occur to people over a half-century ago that terms like drought, famine, flooding, and storms should have been added to the list.

Central to all of this is that effects from climate change are destined to get a lot worse, even if solutions could be found in Paris this week. What will that mean? According to the International Organization of Migration, some 180 – 200 million climate change refugees will be roving the planet by 2050 – a mere three decades from now!

So, while world leaders ponder terms like parts per million, carbon, flooding increases, degrees centigrade, it is really the term “human” that carries the most pressing urgency for the near future. The problems for climate change refugees won’t be solved by the Paris talks because they aren’t even being included in the negotiations. So count on it: we’ll soon be hearing of tens of millions of desperate people in search of survival. Climate change isn’t all about scientific challenges. Its effects have a human fallout already playing out before our eyes. If we are to alter that future, Paris this week would have been a good place to start.