The coming flood of climate refugees

Climate change is with us, and we need to think about the next big disturbing idea — the potentially disastrous consequences of massive numbers of environmental refugees at large on the planet. At a recent meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, experts described a world struggling to cope with one of the largest migrations in history. In 2020, the United Nations projects that we will have 50 million environmental refugees, mostly from Africa, Asia and Latin America. The threat of increasing floods, disease and famine sparked by climate change could nullify meaningful and sustainable development in poor countries. These people will be left to seek new homes in an era where "asylum" has increasingly become an unwelcome term.

At this writing, Europe is under siege by one of the largest Syrian war-induced migrations in history. The war has dragged on for over four years now, taking more than 200,000 lives and causing untold destruction to the Syrian environment. Well over a million refugees have entered Europe, adding a complex religious and mix to the already complicated issue of climate refugees ("Trump envoy Haley tells refugees she cares, but defends cuts," May 24). These streams of migrants may literally change the face of the continent in a generation. Optimists hope that through resettlement and education the issues can be resolved. Others believe that this might be the time when things begin to fall apart in our global system. At present, while a dangerous situation unfolds, many world leaders have chosen paralysis and mutual recrimination. At this juncture, members of the EU nations of Europe are discussing ways to keep further immigration limited to "documented" refugees.


In 2009, only 30 percent of Americans believed that the world climate was changing. By 2012, surveys revealed that 70 percent of the American people had come to believe that greenhouse gases had altered the planet. A new age of environmental change — and subsequently refugees — had dawned.

Environmental refugees in an age of sectarian violence, civil war and economic recession are not a flashy public policy project. Most policymakers wish that the subject would go away. But in an age when the world is being forced to bear witness to the fact that millions are fleeing their homes owing to sea rise, desertification, drought, unprecedented hurricanes, tsunamis and war the topic is stubbornly resistant to the kinds of public amnesia so often in effect in the world theater of nations.

We do not know how soon reality will trump ideology. At present, there are lots of back and forth discussions between national and international leaders that haven't been very productive. What is certain, however, is that climate change is not just changing the planet, it is changing human lives. As early as 1971, Richard Falk, a professor of international law at Princeton, argued that environmental change was a security issue and outlined what he called his first law of ecological politics: the faster the rate of change, the less time to adapt, the more dangerous the impact will be. We are now living in an age of resource shocks. Unbridled world consumption of food and water and other resource conflicts combine with xenophobia to make a toxic brew.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees with a lean staff of 7,600 workers is already stressed by refugee crises of some 37 million in Africa and the Middle East. Add millions of people displaced by climate change and you have a crisis of governance and management that will sorely tax the wisest solons at the UN and other governmental agencies.

It is not rocket science to conclude that as the century progresses there will be a glaring need for more farms and more farmers to feed the planet's burgeoning population. Meanwhile, major countries like China are buying farmland in whatever country they can find it, and food stocks on Wall Street such as ConAgra and General Mills are soaring. Access to supplies like water and grain will become major concerns to countries with diminished rainfall. By 2020, warns Chatham House in its Resources Futures report, "yields from rain-fed agriculture could be reduced by 50 percent in some areas. The highest rates of loss are expected to be in Africa, where reliance on rain-fed farming is greatest, but agriculture in China, India, Pakistan and Central Asia is also likely to be severely affected." Heat waves will diminish the flow of rivers, which will mean diminishing supplies of water for irrigation and hydroelectric power. Long range, in addition to setting waves of population migration in motion, a changed environment in the future will transform infrastructures of government out of recognition from their older patterns.

Presently, in the safe affluent confines of our homes, we watch on our television or read in our newspapers of the relentless march of hundreds of thousands of refugees out of Africa and the Middle East bound for the sanctuary and prosperity of England and Western Europe. They are people who cannot hold on to a livelihood in their forsaken homelands because of drought, soil erosion, desertification, floods and war. They are desperate people willing to risk the violence of nativist Europeans or drowning in a tempest of the Mediterranean Sea. Unlike other refugees of yesteryear, these have abandoned their homeland with little hope of a foreseeable return.

Environmental refugees are a problem of development policy beyond the scope of a single country or agency. The problems are fraught with emotion, human agency and political controversy. How will people be relocated and settled? Is it possible to offer environmental refugees temporary or permanent asylum? Will these refugees have any collective rights in the new areas they inhabit? And lastly, who will pay the costs of all the affected countries during the process of resettlement?

Developed western nations like the United States also have already begun to feel the shock of environmental stresses and catastrophes. A decade ago, Hurricane Katrina put New Orleans under water and more recently, Hurricane Sandy decimated the Middle Atlantic coast and flooded New York City. Today, the Southwest languishes in one of the worst droughts in recent memory while environmental historians point out similarities with the Dust Bowl of winds that roared across of the drought-ridden plains of Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma in the 1930s and covered distant cities like Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia in a choking mantle of dust and dirt.

California worries over its San Andreas fault and seismologists of the Pacific Northwest fear the coming of "The Big One" — sliding tectonic plates of the "Cascadian subduction zone" resulting in a major earthquake followed by tsunamis whose impact will cover some 140,000 square miles, render seven million homeless and destroy and flood Seattle, Tacoma, Eugene and Salem, the capital of Oregon.

Comprehending the scale of our looming climate crisis is difficult. And absorbing climate refugees or their war-torn brethren from other lands is burdensome and fraught with controversy. It is easy to welcome them at the airport but more complex to provide them with sustenance and jobs. Thus when we contemplate the subject of refugees and the future, we might do well to look in a mirror and recognize that everyone of us is or could be a migrant.

John R.Wennersten and Denise Robbins, Washington, D.C.


The writers are, respectively, emeritus professor of environmental history at the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore and communications director at Chesapeake Climate Action Network. They are co-authors of a new book, "Rising Tides: Climate Refugees in the 21st Century."