As early as 1990, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) suggested that the “gravest effects of climate change may be those on human migration.” Similar predictions today suggest that 200 million people could be forced from their homes by 2050 due to environmental factors arising from climate change.
Crucially, it is evident that environmental stresses affect communities and regions least able to adapt to change, typically hitting the poorest people on our planet. At the same time, many of the regions and populations that will be most affected, such as Bangladesh or small island developing states such as the Maldives and Seychelles, also have some of the lowest per capita greenhouse gas emissions. Historically, they have been responsible for a tiny fraction of the warming gases released, compared with those released by western industrialised nations. For many in the west, the effects of a changing climate remain largely an abstract concept, yet among poorer nations the climate is already devastating the lives of millions.
Meanwhile, there is a complete absence of any formal, enforceable, legal multilateral mechanism designed to address the needs of these people and assist in creating some greater equality and proportionality between those causing climate change and those most affected.
The 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees was drafted in the immediate aftermath of the second world war; its focus on those who are forced from their country of origin through fear of persecution, “for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”. In today’s world, the 1951 convention cannot meet the needs of climate refugees, as its narrow legal definitions will not apply to most of those affected by climate change. Also, the specific desire and best option for many will be to stay within their national boundaries if the financial and technical assistance to do so were forthcoming.
Just as the overarching threat of climate change is one of global responsibility, so is the fate of climate refugees. In this context, there is a clear and compelling imperative to create a new multilateral legal mechanism – and with it a new legal definition for climate refugees – that enshrines the right to life, food, health, water, housing and other essentials. This should apply to all those who are now affected and the millions more who will be affected by the changes in our climate created largely by a distant, and still largely unresponsive, wealthy west.
Every year, climate change leaves more than 300,000 people dead, 325 million people seriously affected, and economic losses of $125bn. If anyone should be in any doubt as to the comparative costs of propping up failing economies, and of protecting millions of people from climate change, the UN has estimated that annual global spending to mitigate the worst effects of climate change amounts to about $0.5bn. Compare that with the $150bn spent by the US federal government to bail out just one failing insurance company, or the top nine US banks which gave over $32bn in bonuses alone that same year.
The recent financial crisis has shown that both political will and financial muscle can be mobilised when the wealth and way of life for the developed world is threatened. Now, in the knowledge that not just the way of life, but the actual existence of many is threatened by climate change, we must mount a similarly forceful response and create a new legal framework for climate refugees alongside the essential action to curb our carbon emissions.