Climate Refugees: Seeking an Intimate Connection to a Home

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When the human populations transitioned from a hunter-gatherer society to an agricultural society about 12,000 years ago, it dramatically changed our entire relationship to our environment, eventually creating an intimate connection to a particular place: a home. During preagricultural times, hunter-gatherers had been living in small nomadic groups and moved as they followed their food supply. Multiple factors are believed to have precipitated the shift from hunting-gathering to farming and agriculture. Archaeological evidence seems to suggest that a major factor was a climate change event, the Ice Age. After the Ice Age, conditions for agriculture, farming, and herding were favorable. Food surpluses encouraged humans to stay in one place longer and grow the food to meet their demand. Settlements and communities took root. Innovation and experimentation followed, as human populations adapted to raising livestock and farming. A reliable food supply and a settled way of life supported a population boom over time. As a sense of place and permanence grew, it allowed communities and groups to develop cultural traditions, belief systems, a way of life, and a more complex identity rooted in their chosen home. The world population grew from about 5 million people 10,000 years ago to the seven billion it is today.

Different parts of the world adapted its agricultural practices to its own micro climate, geography, and weather patterns. This involved an intimate understanding of the art and science of cultivating soil, growing crops, rearing livestock, and domestication of plants and animals for human commerce and consumption. Developing this knowledge base required continuous observation and experience of the passage of time. This knowledge, which has been refined and built on, has been the basis on which civilizations thrived and prospered. The intimate relationship that humans built with the earth allowed agriculture to be a major defining force of human culture for 10,000 years. Predictable food supplies allowed agriculture to scale up, to support trade, connect countries and regions, and become the modern industry it is today.

However not all agriculture and farming activities are at an industrial scale. Thousands and thousands of small, rural, and indigenous communities around the world have invested their blood, sweat, and tears into their small subsistence farms, fishing, and herding activities to support their families and communities over generations. Some of these communities are economically and politically isolated. With fewer options for education and social advancement, they are vulnerable and live at the margins of poverty. It is these communities that are most vulnerable to the impact of climate change on their way of life, sustenance, and economic futures. It is these communities that face the threats of losing their home, their sense of connection to the land, forests, waterways, nature, flora, and fauna that are integrated into their identities.

Climate change is a gradual process that happens over decades. Risks to human populations such as air pollution, sea-level rise, desertification, and shifts in monsoons and rain patterns are slow-onset events. In recent decades the frequency of severe weather patterns and unpredictable weather patterns have created new risks and exacerbated others, creating food and water insecurity, disruption of livelihoods, and competition over resources. Countries and regions are being forced to rethink their understanding of the agricultural systems that have been refined over so many thousands of years and relied on predictable weather patterns. Along the frontlines of climate change, these old systems of agriculture, farming, and raising cattle are severely being tested. These communities are facing hunger and lack of drinking water because of droughts, poor harvests, or devastation caused by extremes such as floods, wildfires, and extreme temperatures.

As some areas of the earth become uninhabitable for human populations, climate change is becoming a major driver for displacement and migration. The loss of livelihood and bleak economic prospects are forcing people to be on the move. All these factors also contribute to tensions and skirmishes that explode into conflict as communities compete for dwindling resources. Internally Displaced People or IDPs are those who are forcibly displaced in their own countries and cannot return home. Most climate displacement is internal and becomes the responsibility of the state. Still others leave their countries and cross borders looking for new opportunities. Whether internally or externally displaced, collectively they are climate refugees because the effects of climate change and global warming make it difficult or impossible to continue living in their home area. Climate refugees belong to a larger group of immigrants known as environmental refugees, which also include those who are forced to flee because of natural disasters such as erupting volcanoes and tsunamis.

It is often the poorest, the disenfranchised, the most vulnerable, and marginalized who both contributed the least to global warming and are experiencing the worst crises. According to UNHCR, an annual average of 21.5 million people has been forcibly displaced by weather related events since 2008. The World Bank estimates about 143 million climate refugees by 2050. Often climate refugees are rural and coastal residents. Regardless of where climate refugees come from and where they end up, they face a host of challenges. They may have to adjust to different cultures, laws, and languages. They have to learn new skills to earn a living as the farming, fishing, agriculture, and herding skills they possess may not transfer to their new environments. They have to endure being torn away from land, occupations, and kinship groups that have endured for generations. They may encounter hostility and conflict in their new home as residents are less welcoming to new climate refugees. New conflicts over resources can ensue. This is a human crisis.

For those who are forced to move, they do so with very little legal protection. Since they do not move voluntarily, they are not migrants or refugees. There are no legally binding international laws that oblige any country to support climate refugees. The 1951 Refugee Convention, which was primarily created to manage European refugees from World War II, protects those fleeing war and conflict who face persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, social group, or political beliefs. Climate refugees, however, are not covered by this convention. While the Global Compact on Safe Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM), adopted by the UN in 2018, is rooted in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and accepts climate change as a factor in migration and seeks to be gender responsive and child sensitive, it does not outline special legal protections for those affected. Some argue that if climate refugees were given the same legal status as refugees they could benefit from legal protections and relocation programs. Others prefer to refer to these climate refugees as climate migrants, but this classification would not create new protections. It would at least identify those who are IDPs or internal migrants in a country moving from one region to another because of climate related events. As a consequence, climate refugees go where they can, and not where they should. Their lives are disrupted and they face uncertain futures. The lack of planning by governments and international organizations exacerbate the problem.

What is clear is that

  • The global community has woken up to the seriousness of global warming and climate change. Solutions to combat both will take a long time and is an expensive process.
  • The climate crisis is a human crisis. It is driving displacement and migration and is expected to become a bigger challenge for all concerned.
  • There is no consensus on how to refer to people who must leave their homes and communities because of the effects of climate change and global warming.
  • Under prevailing conventions and laws, there are no legal protections for climate refugees.
  • There is no official data on exact numbers of climate refugees. Migration is a complex, multidimensional issue, and climate change may only be one of the reasons for displacement.
  • The human cost of displacement can impact generations to come.

While the experts argue over definitions, responsible parties, and legal ramifications, climate refugees are being forced to rely on the tools they have to seek greener pastures, relocate, and start their lives all over again. They seem to be the forgotten victims of climate change.

All climate refugees are seeking is a place to call home, a chance to start over while grieving and adapting to what has been lost. What are we waiting for? While there is greater consensus on the reality of global warming and climate change, not everybody has been forced to alter their way of life, adapt, and change the way they do things. Most people are not faced with abandoning their homes, uprooting their lives, and leaving behind their identities and intimate connections. Many people believe that they will not need to change their ways of life during their lifetimes and that we can afford to kick the proverbial can down the road. But climate refugees today have important lessons for us all. We need to be thinking more about future generations and how timely interventions now could make a difference. We need to collectively acknowledge that all of us have a stake in seeking solutions to climate change as well as protecting those who are already feeling the impacts. The global community could start by listening carefully and intently to the voices of climate refugees, acknowledging their grief and pain, and seek their input in solutions. Regional, national, and international cooperation and good governance will be key to addressing the issue and making inroads with solutions. Whether we feel it in our daily lives or not, we are, after all, intimately connected to each other and dependent on this earth that is our home.

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