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Climate refugees - the elephant in the room at Copenhagen

By Michael Crowe and Cam Walker - posted Wednesday, 25 November 2009

In December the governments of the world will converge on Copenhagen in an attempt to hammer out the basis of a new agreement on climate change. Many people around the world will be watching closely for the results, and without over stating the significance of this meeting - “our last best chance” as many have tagged it - we can certainly say that every human being, both present and future, has a stake in the outcome of this conference.

Some, however, have more to lose than others. In early 2003, inhabitants of the Carteret Islands began to dismantle their homes, asking for assistance from the Papua New Guinean government to help fund their forced relocation from their small, low-lying island atolls to Bougainville, almost 100 kilometres to the south. Despite persistent efforts to mitigate the effects of sea level rise through planting mangroves and erecting sea-walls, they have become some of the world’s best known environmental refugees.

The relocation of the 2,700 islanders, which is yet to start in earnest until sufficient funds have been secured, is being co-ordinated by Ursula Rakova, founder of Tulele Peisa, an organisation that raises funds and capacity for the people of the Carteret Islands, and campaigns for climate justice for those most threatened by environmental changes.


Across the Pacific to the east, the citizens of Tuvalu and Kiribati will be watching negotiations with a mix of anxiety and fear as they face a plight all too similar to that of their Papua New Guinean neighbours. “It is possible that our entire country could disappear as a result of climate change” states Apisai Ielemia, Prime Minister of Tuvalu, publicly recognising the distinct similarities between his situation and that of Ms Rakova.

While for these nations the primary goal of the Copenhagen conference will be the immediate mitigation of dangerous drivers of climate change, namely carbon emissions, many leaders from these Pacific island nations already face the possibility of the actual loss of their homelands.

“Even if we all ... agree to immediately begin meeting our earlier targets and timetables, it is too late,” warns Leo Falcam, former president of the Federated States of Micronesia. “For countries such as my own we will need the assistance of the international community in adapting to the rising seas and developing relocating strategies ...”

The international climate negotiations have traditionally had a focus on reducing emissions. In recent years, as the social impacts have become more apparent, adaptation has also come to centre stage.

Beyond adaptation, there is the pressing question of displacement and the need for re-location. The phenomena of climate refugees is not on the agenda at Copenhagen. This is a major omission. And as debate sharpens about how much effort large emerging economies like India and China must make, there is an obvious and growing gap between those who have created the problem of global warming - the rich world or global North - and those who have not caused the bulk of the problem yet who will suffer the most - the developing world or global South. This split was clear at the preparatory climate talks held in Bangkok last month and Barcelona in early November.

A growing number of Southern nations are demanding a human rights approach when creating the next international agreement on climate, as was witnessed in Bangkok, where Bolivia galvanised a significant group of nations to demand recognition of the “carbon debt”. Nonetheless, displacement remains the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about.


Most Southern nations - even those most at risk, the low lying atoll countries such as Tuvalu - are not prepared to acknowledge defeat to rising sea levels. Rich nations like Australia - possibly sensing the domestic backlash that could come with a new “wave” of asylum seekers, prefer to offer adaptation funding than talk about re location options. Many refugee advocates remain hostile to the use of the term “refugee” when it comes to climate induced displacement, and development groups prefer to focus on building resilience in affected communities. Green groups, by and large, ignore the issue.

Until there is a significant movement calling for recognition of climate refugees - under the UN climate convention or another international governance instrument - the issue will continue to be swept under the carpet. This will not make the problem go away. Estimates of likely displacement continue to grow. Professor Norman Myers, who has been researching the topic for decades, suggests that, without serious action to reduce greenhouse emissions, we could be facing the prospect of perhaps 200 million climate refugees by mid century.

Dessima Williams, Chair of the Alliance of Small Island States and ambassador to Grenada, warns that inaction by the international community, may mean “we (will) not have time for an orderly relocation of climate change refugees. In the case of a major event, people will just take their families and flee.”

The “Tampa” crisis stands as an abiding moment of shame for our nation and shows how easily the image of desperate people seeking asylum can be used for xenophobic or other domestic political purposes. Climate induced displacement is real, and without global action - now - to reduce greenhouse emissions, we face the prospect of massive displacement in coming decades.

In spite of the growing numbers of politicians telling us not to expect too much from Copenhagen, we all know it remains our best chance of developing a shared global compact to reign in climate change. It is imperative that we do not ignore the plight of climate refugees in these negotiations. If momentum does not come from those most aware of the dangers of climate change who will champion this cause?

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About the Authors

Michael Crowe studies at Latrobe University.

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

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Michael Crowe
All articles by Cam Walker

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

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