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Climate Refugees: the hidden cost of climate change

By Stephanie Long and Cam Walker - posted Monday, 20 June 2005

This month marks World Refugee Day, and it is timely and appropriate to acknowledge both the plight and the courage of refugees, including those who have sought asylum here in Australia. This day could also be a time for reflection on what may be another crisis over the horizon: the beginning of a new wave of refugees, those fleeing human-induced climate change.

The “Tampa crisis” in 2001 was a significant national event both in terms of the looming federal election and the subsequent strengthening of support for the refugee advocacy movement as the details gained public coverage. However, the response of the then US President Bill Clinton was completely unexpected in the context of border control debates: "If you're worried about 400 people, you just let the world keep warming up like this for the next 50 years and your grandchildren will be worried about 400,000 people." This points the way to an issue that is both complex and exceedingly urgent.

In February 2003, UK Prime Minister Tony Blair stated:


We face a situation in which 50 million people in Asia could be killed or displaced by floods, further swathes of Africa could be reduced to desert, accompanied by massive deforestation in central and South America, and huge increases in disease, particularly malaria. And it is the poorest countries, particularly in Asia and Africa, which will suffer the most devastating effects of these changes.

These two world leaders have an understanding of climate change and climate refugees that exceeds the almost non-existent public discussion in Australia. Yet there is an immediate threat to the habitability of islands and nations in our region of the world - the Pacific. The impacts of climate change, including increased periods of drought, incremental sea-level rises, storm surges and more frequent floods, will affect food and water security.

These factors are probably going to be less “spectacular” than a hurricane or cyclone, yet will probably cause many island states to become uninhabitable. A number of Pacific leaders, including from the Federated States of Micronesia, Maldives and Tuvalu, have made bold statements about the lack of regard for the fate of small island states as rising seas envelope land, contaminate water and wash away crop gardens.

Of those who are displaced, where will they go? Do we believe they will stay where they are and quietly starve? No, they will do what any of us would, move and seek refuge elsewhere. And, do we, as the highest per capita greenhouse polluters in the industrialised world, have a responsibility to respond to them? Absolutely. The “polluter pays” principle is enshrined in the Rio Declaration of the World Earth Summit of 1992.

While the concept of environmental refugees is not new and there is increasing interest in climate refugees, there is no legal recognition of either, providing no assurances for peoples displaced by climate change. The International Red Cross, in its World Disasters Report 2001 suggested that 25 million people (up to 58 per cent of all current refugees) may already be environmental refugees. These people are fleeing a multitude of disruptions, and, it appears, global warming is one of them.

What is daunting is the extreme numbers of climate refugees predicted for the coming decade. One of the major authorities on the topic, Norman Myers, of Oxford University, says there could well be 150 million climate refugees on the move within 50 years, including at least 75 million in the Asia-Pacific region. Rather than scaring ourselves into a fortress mentality, a civilised humanitarian response would be to acknowledge that over the past 150 years Australia has disproportionately contributed to global warming, and we have a moral obligation to assist people to live in their countries for as long as possible and provide asylum for them when people are forced to leave their homes because of climate change.


No one would dare argue that any specific extreme weather event is caused by climate change, however the world increasingly recognises that climate change exacerbates extremes in weather, such as heat waves in Europe and bush fires in Canberra in 2003. The US and Australian governments continue to focus on the inadequacies of Kyoto and perceived economic costs of a transition to a less carbon-intensive future. Not surprisingly, the human dimension of climate change is largely missing from the public realm.

Already it is becoming obvious that, without immediate action, the costs of this will be economic tragedy and human misery, and the worst of the pain will be felt by the poorest nations (ironically, those least responsible for global warming). And yet without legal recognition of environmental refugees, peoples displaced because of climate change are the most disadvantaged peoples in climate change scenarios.

The Pacific island nation of Tuvalu has signed an agreement with New Zealand to relocate many of its citizens over the coming decades. When the Tuvaluan Government approached Australia to undertake a similar commitment, the response demonstrated a complete lack of awareness of climate change science and impacts. Unknown to the majority of Australians is the fact that our government refused to consider accepting Tuvaluans migrating to Australia because climate change was “unproven”, and so there was insufficient basis to change immigration policy.

We need to understand that countries like Australia, as major per capita contributors of greenhouse pollution, bear a significant responsibility for this displacement. Accordingly, in recognition of this fact, we must make room for environmental refugees, as well as changing policies that contribute to the creation of more ecologically displaced people. Sadly, the Australian Government has consistently shown that it has no intention of making deep cuts in emissions through reducing consumption, switching to renewable energy generation or mandating energy efficiency measures. Yet we know that what is required is immediate and dramatic action on global warming. This will greatly ameliorate the human costs of climate change, and the creation of climate refugees.
So, it will be up to the Australian community to ensure the necessary action is taken. We need to recognise environmental refugees, based on an acceptance that they are real, and that they result from genuine ecological disruptions (including global warming). Perhaps in the slightly longer term Australia will need to create an environmental refugee program as an element of its broader refugee program. This should not be at the expense of other asylum seeker quotas.

Australia should also consider how its aid program is delivered, and investigate whether there needs to be increased funding available for communities who are impacted by human-induced climate change. Australia’s foreign aid program is still shamefully low and should be increased to reflect an adequate proportion of our Gross National Income and to meet the OECD target of 0.7 per cent of GNI.

It is not often that potentially massive disasters can be averted through a proactive, visionary and international response. Inaction could well mean disaster for Australia, and literally millions of displaced people in our region - causing mass migrations on a scale previously only imagined. As the Tampa crisis showed, by the time people are physically seeking refuge in Australia, the chances of having a reasoned and compassionate debate is non-existent with the politics currently at play in this country. But if we act now as a community and force the government to do the same, we will potentially be able to turn a disaster around before it reaches a point of crisis. This is exactly what can, and must, happen with climate refugees. We have the knowledge - the only thing lacking is political will. Action now may make future world refugee days a cause for celebration, not, as it is now, a time to be embarrassed to be an Australian.

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About the Authors

Stephanie Long is actively involved of Friends of the Earth Australia’s climate justice campaign.

Cam Walker is National Liaison Officer for Friends of the Earth Australia.

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Stephanie Long
All articles by Cam Walker
Related Links
Citizens guide to climate refugees (pdf file 1.1MB)

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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