Dan Box Blog: climate change refugees

An inhospitable planet? As climate change forces increasingly large numbers of people to flee their homes, Ecologist blogger Dan Box considers what 'climate change refugees' actually means

Climate change refugees are, for want of a better word, a sexy subject. Type the phrase into Google and you get 1,320,000 results. NGOs campaign on the issue. A recent issue of the Ecologist put a photograph of a small, sad, boy from the Sundarbans delta, India on its front cover, beside the words ‘The First Global Warming Refugee’. Like sex, the subject sells.

Indeed, I first started this project with the idea that, in my own words, the evacuation of the Carteret Islands was “the first wave in what the Red Cross predicts will become a flood of millions of refugees created by climate change”. After the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) decided to fund my journey to report from the Carterets, I was told it was this fact alone that convinced them to do so.

But what are climate change refugees? The answer, it seems, is that nobody actually knows. Last Friday, a British NGO, the Climate Outreach and Information Network (COIN), held a ‘Climate Refugees Roundtable’. Hoping to find the answers to the above question, I asked if I could go along. They said no. Apparently the room was too small.

So I wrote to COIN, asking if they could help me with the basics. Where could I find out how many climate refugees there were? Which parts of the world were most affected? And what legal status did they have as refugees? COIN wrote back to say: “Thanks for your email. Big questions...the answers to which no one person appears to hold as yet.”

This left me a little dumbfounded. I’d assumed that since we were talking about the issue so much (a quick archive search turns up almost 10,000 newspaper articles containing the words ‘climate change’ + ‘refugee’), someone would have already covered all these bases. I was wrong.

The best place to start, according to COIN, is this report, by the Norwegian Refugee Council.

Surprisingly, it says “there is no agreed definition” of what constitutes a climate refugee – essentially, while we may use the words, we don’t know what they mean. Nor is it likely we will ever be able to say that someone is a climate change refugee. It implies too simplistic a view of the world; people flee their homes for various reasons including hunger, war and the hope they may make more money elsewhere. Any of these factors could be caused or made worse by climate change.

“Because one cannot completely isolate climate change as a cause however, it is difficult, if not impossible to stipulate any numbers,” the Norwegian refugee report says. Not that this has stopped people trying. The most publicized estimate puts the figure of environmental refugees at 150 million by 2050, up from 25 million in the mid-1990s.

That’s a lot but, according to the Norwegians, the sums behind these figures have been criticized for being inconsistent and impossible to check. Despite this, the numbers themselves have been repeatedly bandied about (I, too, am guilty of previously accepting them at face value). Worse, the use of ‘refugee’ itself is often technically inaccurate and has no grounding in law.

So what is going on? The Norwegians seem to suggest someone has been scaremongering: “Arguably, the prevalent use of the term today is linked to the agendas of environmentalists, conflict researchers and a heterogeneous group of security people” keen either to play up fears of global warming itself, or of national borders swamped by a tide of climate refugees.

I’m not saying that is right – though I might have a better idea about people’s agendas if COIN had let me sit at their roundtable. Nor does a lack of agreed definitions or numbers make the issue any less serious when measured out in terms of human suffering. I am only at the very beginning of understanding this issue and have no more, or quite possibly less, knowledge of it than anyone reading this blog.

If anything, this week I have learned how little I know.

As their island homes are swallowed by rising sea levels, the people of the Carteret Islands are being forced to leave in what will become the world’s first official climate change evacuation. Dan Box will be travelling to the islands in April and will be blogging live on his journey at www.journeytothesinkinglands.wordpress.com

The trip is made possible thanks to the Royal Geographical Society (With IBG) Journey of a Lifetime Award

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