I WROTE A COLUMN FOR THE London Free Press last weekend about the current refugee situation and its implications. There were a number who wrote in afterwards expressing interest in the following observation from that piece and asked for some additional information on environmental refugees:
“How will we handle the rise of climate-change refugees in the coming years? Cutting the UN number projections in half would still see some 100 million refugees a year migrating around the globe over the next decades. Added to those fleeing their homelands due to conflict and we begin to grasp the seriousness of the task ahead of us.”
Many asked why this hasn’t taken higher priority in the federal election campaign, especially in light of the recent crisis. That’s likely because political parties are aware that the investments required to battling climate change would dwarf whatever actions were taken on helping those forced to flee their homelands due to environmental degradation.
The International Red Cross has claimed that there are easily more environmental refugees than political refugees. The last year a detailed report was taken on this issue, some 36 million people were displaced by natural disasters in 2009. An increasing body of evidence is leading to the conclusion that by 2050 we could see that number climb as high as 200 million. And that will be a catastrophe for the entire planet. The implications on politics will be huge, and yet here we are in 2015, and it barely raises a ripple.
Rising sea levels, already a reality around the globe, are due to increase significantly, endangering people on coastlines and forcing them to move. Bangladesh will lose 17% of its land by 2050 due to flooding by climate change. Some 20 million refugees could be created in that nation alone.
Louisiana loses 65 square kilometers of land to the sea each year, endangering populations along the coastline. Maldives, an island nation in the Indian Ocean, rises only 2.4 metres above sea level at its highest point. It is possible that in the next few years all 1200 islands in the Maldives will be underwater, forcing scores of refugees to take ship and do their best to make it to other nations.
And then there is drought – a reality that is increasingly creating inland environmental refugees. China’s Gobi Desert now expands more than 3600 kilometers every year. Residents in the Horn of Africa region have only a few years left before they must begin moving their families to other nations just in order to survive.
So, this is likely what’s coming. If the Syrian refugee situation is presently taxing the globe’s ability to respond, how will we handle the millions more about ready to emerge? Environmental refugees aren’t protected by international laws, and therefore have fewer protections than their political refugee counterparts. Many of these will move to other places within their own countries if they are able, but an ever-increasing number will begin pouring across borders and inevitably onto the front page of world attention.
Without question, the greatest issue involving this, or any other, election around the world are the implications of climate change and their inevitable economic, social, ethical, and political effects. Why, then, in the midst of what many regard as an election that could signal a public desire for change, does the issue of climate change itself capture so little of the campaign rhetoric or the public attention?
Victor Hugo made a revealing claim way back in 1840: “How sad to think that nature speaks and mankind doesn’t listen.” With the current refugee crisis we have demonstrated the collective ability to take note of catastrophic effects. We must now lift our sights even higher and press our political candidates to give us something better than mere bromides on the climate change challenges that are coming. Should we fail in this task as citizens, we can’t solely shift the blame onto past political failures. Much of that indictment will land closer to home. The waves are coming and we must get our candidates to absorb and respond to the implications.