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There are several ways to lose your home to climate change. Sometimes it happens in an instant, a casualty of a hurricane, flood, wildfire, or one of the other extreme weather events that have been devastating communities with alarming frequency.
But for millions of people around the world displaced by climate change, it’s been happening more slowly, even building over the last decade. And it’s happening on a scale that will force us to rethink everything — from international law and humanitarian aid to global food and water solutions, healthcare, job training, and city planning.
In 1991, the first Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that displacement will be the biggest challenge presented by climate change. But not much has been done to address this problem in the 30 years since. Climate-related events have been internally displacing an average of 21.6 million people over the past decade. In 2020, 30.7 million were displaced by climate change — three times more than conflict and violence. These displacements are predominantly happening in regions of the world that contributed the least to the climate crisis, like Somalia, a country with a carbon footprint of zero.
Also on the Forum Network: The Time to Act is Now: The International Community Must Create Pathways to Safety for Climate Migrants by Ama Francis Climate Displacement Project Strategist
Many policymakers think of migration as a failed outcome; climate advocates consider migration to be the result of inadequate efforts to cut emissions, while governments consider migration to be a failure to contain risk abroad. Increased mobility is a necessary part of securing human survival.
Families in Somalia, Sudan and Ethiopia, one of the world’s most vulnerable regions to climate change in the Horn of Africa, are currently experiencing an unprecedented drought — the worst to strike the region in 40 years — along with the world’s worst food emergency. The past years have seen torrential rains, record floods, repeated droughts, six consecutive failed rainy seasons and swarms of desert locusts that resemble a biblical plague, devastating crops and grazing lands.
Nearly 40 million people are affected by near famine. With around 80% of the region’s population dependent on herding and farming to survive, the food insecurity and malnutrition brought on by the drought have left many people with no other option but migration. Those who can travel and secure enough water and food for the journey are leaving their homes in droves. They head for displacement camps in the cities, and across borders to villages shared by people of the same ethnicity.
Nobody should want to live in a camp. But for people displaced by climate change, there is nothing to go back to.
In Somalia last year, I visited camps for internally displaced people (IDPs). The people I talk to in IDP camps used to ask, “When can we go back?” Now, they are asking, “How can we make a place here that we can call home?” Nobody should want to live in a camp. But for people displaced by climate change, there is nothing to go back to.
This is a crucial moment for public awareness and understanding of the connection between climate change and migration. The IPCC’s latest report in March warned us that there is a rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a livable and sustainable future for all — if governments take action now to limit the global average temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit. The report also urges us to strengthen social safety nets for those most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. International think tank the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) estimates 1.2 billion people could be displaced by 2050, in the absence of a strong global response to the climate crisis.
People who leave their countries in the context of climate change or disasters do not currently qualify for protection under international law. The 1951 Refugee Convention recognises refugees as individuals who have left their country due to war or persecution on the basis of five protected grounds — nationality, race, political opinion, religion, or particular social group — which leaves those fleeing environmental disasters without protection.
This moment calls for a widespread movement to broaden rights and protections for people displaced by climate change and recognise climate displacement as a special category under refugee law.
Humanitarian aid in the age of climate change requires new, more expansive solutions. In the short term, we need more disaster relief for displaced people. Without a coordinated, global response to climate displacement, aid organisations are filling the gap, and they need your attention and support to provide water, food, shelter and healthcare in IDP camps. In the long term, we need to think about adaptation, sustainability, and resilience. The strongest solutions are ones that are co-designed with the people closest to the problems. Aid organisations are working on the ground with local leaders and displaced communities to address long-term needs — rebuilding and adapting cities, providing education and training programs that help secure livelihoods, and investing in women and girls.
This moment calls for a widespread movement to broaden rights and protections for people displaced by climate change and recognise climate displacement as a special category under refugee law. It’s impossible to understand climate displacement and create doable solutions without talking to the people who are already experiencing the worst effects of climate change. But it’s not often that we put climate refugees at the center of our environmental activism, and even less often that we save displaced people a seat at the tables where policy gets made.
We can change that. Organisations like Climate Refugees are working with policymakers to broaden rights and protections for people displaced across borders by climate change. Alight, the humanitarian nonprofit I lead, supports people displaced by drought in the Horn of Africa, floods in Pakistan, and other disasters around the world. Nobody wants to leave their home. But we need to recognise that unprecedented numbers of people are being forced from their homes. We need new language, new insights, new solutions, and most importantly, new funding to address the impacts of climate-related displacement in a way that ensures the dignity of the individual and the protection of human rights. We’ve had 30 years to heed the IPCC’s urgent warning about climate displacement, but it’s still not too late to catch up.
Learn more by reading the OECD report: States of Fragility 2022
States of Fragility 2022 arrives during an ‘age of crises’, where multiple, concurring crises are disproportionately affecting the 60 fragile contexts identified in this year’s report. Chief among these crises are COVID-19, Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and climate change, with the root causes of multidimensional fragility playing a central role in shaping their scale and severity. The report outlines the state of fragility in 2022, reviews current responses to it, and presents options to guide better policies for better lives in fragile contexts.