A literature review by L. Smith, Victoria University 2007
Many relevant and useful resources have been published recently on the subject of climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s most recent Third Assessment Report (TAR) series is perhaps the most authoritative and comprehensive of these. It is also the most high profile report dealing with the climate change issue. Whilst scientific consensus has more or less been reached on this subject, current debate centres on the more salient themes of “impacts, adaptation, vulnerability and mitigation” (IPCC - TAR, 2001). It is within this framework that most discussions and research about ‘Climate Refugees’ are located.
Climate Refugees in context
The fact that much of the research conducted into the social impacts of climate change can be found within the literature of various non-government agencies is, perhaps, not unexpected, though telling. After all, it is these agencies which are often at the forefront of major shifts; acting as change agents. Organisations working on the plight of refugees are well placed to see the impact that extreme climatic events have upon victims. According to these organisations, the scope of the problem is enormous. The Red Cross, the number of people killed by weather-related disasters has increased more than 65 times in the past 30 years (Vidal, J, 2005). While the number of people killed by natural disasters as a whole has risen to 211 million per year (the number killed by conflict is 31 million) the estimate for those who might be classified climate refugees has been put at around 25 million (58% of all current refugees). The IPCC estimates that the figure could rise to as much as 150 million by 2050. There is no exaction to these figures however, as vulnerable ‘climate refugees’ are still an unrecognised category of refugee according to the UN (although there are unconfirmed reports of a change in the near future (SPREP, 2007). Without legal recognition, those displaced by climate change are at great disadvantage and the onus of responsibility for their plight remains unclear (Long, S. and Walker, C, 2005, Hultman, N.E & Bozmoski, A.S, 2006 and others).
A lack of status is just one of the many problems facing climate refugees. Literature states that with 67% of deaths from natural disasters occurring in impoverished countries (Red Cross, 2001), it would appear that the victims of climate change are disproportionately represented here (Smit, J, H, 2004, Hultman, N.E & Bozmoski, A.S, 2006, F.O.E., 2006, Vidal, J, 2005, WWF, 2005)). Research has shown that extreme climate events are more disastrous in coastal areas (including low lying island nations) (Hoegh-Guldberg, O, Hoegh-Guldberg, H. Stout, D.K & Cesar, H, 2000, TAR, 2001) and dry climates such as those in North Africa (TAR, 2001, F.O.E., 2006). The reasons for this are manifold. As is well documented, climatic conditions have a direct effect upon ecosystems, water and food security and infrastructure. When people can no longer survive because of adverse conditions, they become displaced persons. The term climate refugee (in French; Réfugiés Climatiques) was coined by the photographers/journalists of the French Collectif ARGOS, who documented an investigation into the subject in 2002 (Wiki, 2007). ‘Environmental refugees’ are another term sometimes used interchangeably.
Recognition of the plight of climate refugees has been slow, as has recognition of those who are at risk of becoming climate refugees. As previously mentioned, the vast majority of both these groups are made up of majority world persons. There are some common risk factors, however. The literature agrees rural communities and farmers, particularly those that are subsisting as well as indigenous communities are at high risk (TAR, 2001, F.O.E., 2006, Byravan,