What is a ‘climate refugee’ and how many are there? | Grist
There are pros and cons to calling those forced to move due to climate change “refugees.” On the one hand, it certainly communicates the urgency of the climate situation — ecosystems are changing so quickly and so unprecedentedly that many people don’t recognize the places they once called home. (And not in a “this neighborhood’s been taken over by yuppies!” way; in a, “wow, it’s too hot to breathe” way.) The word “refugee” fits the idea of millions of people being forced to leave their homes due to climate change, and that is certainly a convincing argument that we are facing a dire, global emergency.
But then there’s the way that the word “refugee” is used to stir up xenophobia. In fact, all you have to do is turn on cable news to hear some politician or pundit avidly fearmongering about Salvadoran or Syrian or Sudanese refugees pounding at the borders of wealthier (read: whiter) nations. Instead of inspiring people to do something proactive about climate change, like vote, or roll your car into a ditch, the idea of so many people displaced by global warming can be weaponized into a rationale for border walls, military action, or other forms of protectionism.
In other words, we’re at a very, very weird moment in the trajectory of climate change awareness. With many people already suffering from climate consequences and many, many more poised to join them, we must convince those in resource-chugging countries to take action without inflaming their, at times misinformed, sense of self-preservation. The scale of action that must be taken is both overwhelming and overdue, and it requires seeing ourselves as a global community. But it’s an incredibly complicated thing to do, and we must choose our words wisely, as pedantic as that can seem.
Now to the numbers part of your question: The Institute for Economics and Peace, an Australian think tank, recently estimated that in 2017 alone, 18 million people — 61.5 percent of global displacements — were forced to move due to natural disasters. (Those natural disasters are not universally caused by climate change, but global warming is predicted to cause more frequent and intense disasters.) And while projections vary, sources agree that those numbers are going to get a whole lot higher. That same report noted that nearly 1 billion people currently live in areas of “very high” or “high” climate exposure, which could result in millions of people displaced by climate change in the future. A 2018 World Bank report estimated that by 2050, there would be 143 million climate change-driven migrants from the regions of Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and southeast Asia alone.
But, if we’re talking about legally designated “climate refugees,” there’s a much different number being thrown around: zero.
That’s because “refugee” has a specific legal definition with certain criteria that need to be met to be able to apply for asylum in a new country, including religious and/or social persecution. And most legal scholars and international lawyers will say that most people who move or are forced to move due to climate disasters are not technically refugees because most of those criteria don’t apply to them.