Climate Change Refugees: A Future Challenge

Within the international community and within our own foreign policy, we could be doing a great deal more to make ourselves aware of the challenges that could be posed in future due to people relocating because climate change has caused life in their original villages to no longer be possible. There is an urgent need to review policy and take this discussion to higher levels.

Agricultural Land in the Indian Himalaya

Are we currently fully aware of and prepared for the issues that could arise over the next decade due to climate change? In 2016, two of the most widely reported issues were climate change and the refugee crisis. Issues relating to refugees might not seem to immediately link to climate change. However, climatic change is causing remote subsistence communities around the world increasing difficulties each year in sustaining their livelihoods within the changing physical landscape. Therefore, there could be extreme influxes in refugees as these people leave their villages in future in search of more prosperous areas to live. It could be argued that there is a lack of awareness of the impacts of climate change in remote subsistence communities around the world and also a lack of preparedness within global policy that needs to be addressed in order to mitigate the issues that could arise through a climate change influenced refugee crisis in the coming years.

Climate change is now a clear push factor influencing decisions of people and families around the world to move to other areas. The most vulnerable settlements to this are remote subsistence communities which rely on the physical landscape to sustain their livelihoods through agriculture.

In mountain regions such as Ladakh in the Indian Himalayas, climate change is bringing an increase in temperature and causing the loss of glaciers. As agricultural communities rely on meltwater coming from the glaciers in these areas to irrigate their farms, climate change means water scarcity, low crop yields and the permanent abandonment of agricultural land. Although increased temperatures might initially cause an increase in meltwater coming from glaciers, over several years it means that the glaciers become too small to produce enough water and also will not melt at times that suit growing seasons and irrigation.

Irrigation-Poor Farm Land in India

The remoteness of these settlements will also increase their vulnerability to climate change. For example, in North Alaska in the Arctic, villages are so remote that options for agriculture and hunting are limited, resulting in a heavy dependence on sustainable whale hunting. A large impact of climate change in the Arctic Ocean is a reduction of sea ice, which makes it difficult and sometimes impossible to hunt these whales as the ice is used for hunters to travel on. The sea ice reduction also exposes the coastal areas to increased wave activity which has led to coastal erosion so severe, several villages have been abandoned over the last five years.

With climate change acting as a push factor in these areas, there are large numbers of people who could be on the brink of becoming environmentally displaced in the next few years. People are already abandoning individual villages due to climate change and relocating nationally and, as soon as this is scaled up to a partial or full abandonment of regional areas, huge international movements of people could be seen. In places like the Himalayas and the Arctic, international geographical borders might not be the most significant factor dictating movement, especially for people of indigenous descent. The Indian Himalayas, for example, has strong cultural and industrial connections with other areas of the Himalayas such as Nepal and Tibet and there is already a lot of movement between these places. Therefore, through people relocating to different parts of the Himalaya region, they could quickly face issues through crossing international borders. Also in the Arctic, as there are very large distances between communities, people may find themselves crossing borders in order to find their nearest suitable neighbouring village to move to which most closely matches their cultural identity.

Due to the likelihood of relocation in other countries, climate change clearly has the potential to cause many people currently living in remote subsistence communities to become refugees. However, if this is the case, these people might find that they do not receive the support they deserve from the international policy.

The term ‘refugee’ is defined by the UNHCR (United Nations Hugh Commissioner for Refugees) 1951 Refugee Convention as people forced to find refuge in another country due to “external aggression, foreign domination, or events seriously disrupting public order”. Within this definition, there is no consideration given to those displaced due to the adverse impacts of climate change. Therefore, people who are forced to move due to climate change have no certainty that they will be able to become permanent residents of whatever country they move to. As climate change is a global issue, global responsibility needs to be taken for those affected by it and a valuable step towards this would be to revise the definition of refugees to include those displaced by climate change. An important consideration is that as over 50 years have passed since the UNHCR’s Refugee Convention, many factors affecting the issue of refugees have changed, so it would be very reasonable to review the definition to make sure that it gives the correct protection to those who deserve it.

So to reflect on the question posed at the start of this discussion, “Are we currently fully aware of and prepared for the issues that could arise over the next decade due to climate change?”, it can be seen that the general public and global policy makers are neither fully aware or prepared for issues that could arise relating to climate change. However, now is the perfect time to review current policy through investigating scientific literature relating to the impacts of climate change on different communities around the world. If this can be done and global responsibility can be taken for these issues, then awareness can grow of the immediate impacts of climate change on remote subsistence communities and global policy decisions can be influenced.

© 2019 by Cameron James Mackay