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Refugees and Displacement

Refugees and Displacement


When changes in a local environment become severe enough, human beings may be forced to move from their homes. Such persons are variously called environmental refugees, environmental exiles, or environmental migrants. In 1998, environmental stress caused over 25 million people worldwide to migrate. When climate change is the cause of the environmental stress that forces migration, the migrants are often termed climate change refugees.

Thus far, the great majority of environmental refugees are not climate change refugees; however, some persons have already been forced to move from low-lying ground by rising sea levels and melting permafrost.

As climate change continues, more climate change refugees will be created. The United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security estimated in 2005 that the number of environmental refugees might rise to approximately 150 million by 2050, mostly as a result of climate change.

Historical Background and Scientific Foundations

Climate change refugees are nothing new; human migrations have been forced many times by environmental change over tens of thousands of years. For example, during the glacial withdrawal at the end of the most recent Ice Age about 12,000 years ago, the disappearance of thick glacial ice from the area that is now the Baltic Sea allowed the underlying rock to rise. The coastline of northern Europe sank like the other end of a see-saw, causing coastlines to move inland. Archaeological evidence shows that settlements along the coastline had to be abandoned quickly as the sea advanced. Intense droughts have also forced human migration many times, and migrations triggered by African climate change may even have helped shaped the course of human evolution.

In the modern era, however, the existence of climate change refugees is new. Millions of people have been forced to move over the last century by ecological and environmental catastrophes, even in industrialized countries. For example, during the Dust Bowl period of 1933 to 1939, over half a million Americans became environmental refugees. However, most of these events have not, so far, been clearly driven or amplified by human-caused (anthropogenic) climate change.

Climate change can force migration by several mechanisms. The most obvious is rising sea level, which can erode coastlines, force salty ocean water into island water tables, render low-lying settlements more vulnerable to storms, speed coastal erosion, and submerge low-lying islands. Over 100 million people live within 3 ft (1 m) of sea level, not far above the amount of sea-level rise that most climatologists say is likely within the next century; about 400 million live no more than 66 ft (20 m) above sea level and within 12 mi (20 km) of a coast. Sea levels are rising because anthropogenic climate change is causing the upper layers of the ocean to warm and therefore expand and because warming is melting mountain glaciers and the ice sheets of Greenland and the West Antarctic Peninsula. From 1993 to the 2007, the rate of sea-level rise was about .12 in per year (3 mm per year).

Most of the islands that are vulnerable to small or modest amounts of sea-level rise are in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. The Maldive Islands in the Indian Ocean, an archipelago of thousands of islets inhabited by over 300,000 people, have an average altitude that is only a little over 3 ft (1 m) above sea level. The Pacific contains 22 island states with a total population of about 7 million. Although these states are responsible for only about .06% of global greenhouse-gas emissions, they are highly vulnerable to sea-level rise.

For example, the small island nation of Tuvalu (population 12,000) is one of the lowest-lying Pacific island states, with an average altitude of about 6 ft (2 m). Already, sea-level rise is poisoning crops with salt water and eroding shorelines. Within 50 years, Tuvalu's coral atolls, like the Maldives, could be essentially uninhabitable.

Less low-lying islands may still be severely stressed by beach erosion, salinization of groundwater, coral bleaching, and other side effects of climate change and sea-level rise. Other effects include the depletion of fisheries, a secondary result of coral bleaching where many fish species depend on coral reefs; rainwater shortages due to shifting rainfall patterns; increases in vector-borne and water-borne diseases, especially malaria and cholera; and damage by waves and storms to infrastructure such as roads and bridges. Low-lying coastal areas of larger landmasses are at similar risk, though only small island nations are threatened with submersion.


CORAL ATOLL: Low tropical island, often roughly ring-shaped, formed by coral reefs growing on top of a subsiding island. The rocky base of the atoll may be hundreds of feet below present-day sea level. Atolls, like other low-lying islands, are threatened with submergence by rapid sea-level rise caused by anthropogenic climate change.

DESERTIFICATION: Transformation of arid or semiarid productive land into desert.

DROUGHT: A prolonged and abnormal shortage of rain.

DUST BOWL: Megadrought that struck the U.S. and Canadian prairies from 1933 to 1939. Parched croplands lost soil to high winds, which blew the dust for long distances. Over half a million Americans became environmental refugees during the Dust Bowl period, many migrating to California.

EROSION: Processes (mechanical and chemical) responsible for the wearing away, loosening, and dissolving of materials of Earth's crust.

ICE AGE: Period of glacial advance.

INTERGOVERNMENTAL PANEL ON CLIMATE CHANGE (IPCC): Panel of scientists established by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in 1988 to assess the science, technology, and socioeconomic information needed to understand the risk of human-induced climate change.

MEGA-DELTAS: Unusually large river deltas. Deltas are flat, lowlying, roughly triangular areas of sediment deposited where large rivers meet the ocean. Megadeltas are found at the mouths of the Mississippi, Nile, Ganges, Yangtze, and many other large rivers.

PERMAFROST: Perennially frozen ground that occurs wherever the temperature remains below 32°F(0°C) for several years.

SALINIZATION: Increase in salt content. The term is often applied to increased salt content of soils due to irrigation: salts in irrigation water tend to concentrate in surface soils as the water quickly evaporates rather than sinking down into the ground.


In 2006, members of the Australian Greens political party campaigned to change Australia's immigration laws to include climate change refugees. The policy pushed for the addition of over 600 annual visas to be issued to persons fleeing the effects of climate change. Lawmakers in favor of the climate change refugee visas noted that sea level rise, salinization, and desertification could significantly affect many of the Pacific Rim's island nations, forcing residents to flee. A slim majority of the policy's opponents acknowledged that climate change could render some Pacific islands uninhabitable. However, they argued that aid should be given to help island nations prepare and adapt for climate change—where possible—before appearing to advocate premature abandonment of viable lands and economies. Tuvalu and Kiribati were two of the proposed climate change refugee visa program's target nations. The government of Tuvalu acknowledged its mounting problems with soil salination, but assured residents that there was no immediate need to emigrate.

Several months after Australia's federal lawmakers voted to reject adding climate change refugee visas to the nation's immigration scheme, Australia's Labour political party reintroduced a different version of the program. Lawmakers in New Zealand also announced that the nation would consider amending its immigration policy to include climate change refugees from the Pacific Rim. However, as of late 2007, both nations continue to debate the issue but neither has adopted a formal climate change refugee policy.

Drought and desertification are also likely to be causes of climate-change migration. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has rated North Africa, where rainfall is decreasing in areas already marginal for agriculture, as one of the areas of the world most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Regions dependent on mountain snow-melt and glacial melt for irrigation water, such as the Ganges Valley in India and the Yellow River Valley in China, will also be stressed by climate change as glaciers shrink or disappear and winter snowpack levels decline. The inhabitants of large deltas (the low-lying regions formed of deposited silt at the outflows of many large rivers) are also particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels. As of 2006, about 300 million people were living on some 40 large river deltas.

Impacts and Issues

Most climate change refugees are likely to be created in poorer countries, as such nations not only lack the money and technology for adapting to climate change but are more likely to have large populations in the areas that will be hardest-hit by climate change, such as North Africa and the mega-deltas.

Climate change refugees, like all refugees, are at greater danger for poverty, hunger, disease, exploitation, violence, and loss of culture. As their numbers grow they may find that neighboring territories, having their own troubles and fearful of being overwhelmed, are increasingly inhospitable. For example, in 2006, when a Tuvalan environmental scientist suggested eventual evacuation of the entire population of Tuvalu to the island of Kioa in the neighboring state of Fiji, Fijian politician Mick Beddoes said that “moving 9,000 Tuvaluan onto Kioa will present many problems for the island's inhabitants, especially from the point of view of education, housing, medical services, water supply, economic activity to sustain such a large number of people.”

Some Tuvalans have already begun to emigrate to Australia and New Zealand. Tuvalu's assistant secretary of foreign affairs said in 2005, “I feel angry because we are being forced to move, to relocate, by something that has nothing to do with us, by factors that are beyond our control.” Many media reports, including some in the BBC and the New York Times, have stated that New Zealand has agreed to accept Tuvalu's entire population as climate change refugees as the island is submerged, but according to the government of New Zealand, the present annual immigration quota of 75 Tuvalans has no link to climate change.

Arctic peoples, though smaller than the large African and Asian populations that will be threatened by drought and rising sea level, are already among the first to be actually driven from their homes by climate change. In Alaska, about 200 coastal villages are at risk from flooding and erosion due to sea-level rise and permafrost melting. For example, as of 2006, the village of Shishmaref, some 400 years old, was planning to evacuate 13.5 mi (22 km) inland because of coastal erosion caused by global warming. Reduced sea ice was allowing higher storm surges to reach the shore, while the thawing of coastal permafrost was making the shore easier to erode. Buildings, roads, the water system, and other infrastructure were being undermined by the encroaching sea.

The Alaskan village of Newtok, settling crookedly on melting coastal permafrost, was already below sea level in 2007 and still sinking. The village had arranged a land trade with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and hoped to move to higher ground 9 mi (14 km) away; however, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimated that the move would cost $413,000 for each of the village's 315 residents, and there was no government or other programs to pay for such a move.

Refugees may be created not only as a direct result of climate change, but as a secondary result of conflicts fueled by climate change. In 2005, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon suggested that the conflict in the Darfur region of western Sudan, in Africa, was partly due to climate change. The area had experienced a 40% decline in regional rainfall over the last 20 years, which increased conflict between Arab nomads and black African villagers. As of April 2007, the Darfur conflict had displaced about 2.2 million people and led to the deaths of about 400,000.

See Also Coastal Populations; Coastlines, Changing; Human Evolution.



Weart, Spencer. The Discovery of Global Warming. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004.


Byravan, Sujatha, and Sudhar Chella Rajan. “Providing New Homes for Climate Change Exiles.” Climate Policy 6 (2006): 247–252.

Ericson, Jason P. “Effective Sea-Level Rise and Deltas: Causes of Change and Human Dimension Implications.” Global and Planetary Change 50 (2006): 63–82.

Leake, Jonathan. “Climate Change ‘Could Create 200m Refugees.’” The Sunday Times (London), April 1, 2007.

Sachs, Jeffrey D. “Climate Change Refugees.” Scientific American, June 2007.

Streets, David G., et al. “Recent Reductions in China's Greenhouse Gas Emissions.” Science 294 (2001): 1,835–1,837.

Web Sites

Allan, Terry J. “Climate Change Refugees.” In These Times, September 4, 2007. <> (accessed November 18, 2007).

“A Citizen's Guide to Climate Refugees.” Friends of the Earth. <> (accessed November 18, 2007).

Lovgren, Stefan. “Climate Change Creating Millions of ‘Eco Refugees,’ UN Warns.” National Geographic News, November 18, 2005. < 051118_disaster_refugee.html> (accessed November 18, 2007).

New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. “New Zealand's Immigration Relationship with Tuvalu.” August 24, 2007. <> (accessed November 18, 2007).

Larry Gilman

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