Is the World Ready for 20 Million Climate Refugees?

According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, fifty million people are likely to be fleeing the effects of climate change by the year 2020. Droughts, rising sea levels, more intense tropical storms, and other climate change effects are set to displace millions of individuals and families, especially in the developing world. The majority of these people will likely head for developed countries, which are perceived as having more resources to deal with the effects of climate change and which may suffer fewer immediate impacts than developing nations.

The take home message is that even countries which stand to escape the worst climate change impacts relatively unscathed will still feel pressure in a warming world. In fact parts of the globe that suffer least from immediate impacts of climate change will make the most logical destinations for climate change refugees. The United States, Canada, and Europe can all expect to see an influx of millions of people fleeing from climate devastation in their own countries. The question is, are developing nations prepared to deal with this humanitarian crisis?

Because of the many political and economic factors that cause people to flee an area, it is all but impossible to attribute an individual refugee event to climate change specifically. Yet overall a warming planet will undoubtedly lead to droughts, floods, and other disturbances that make human habitation difficult or impossible in large parts of the world. Indeed Europe and the United States are likely already feeling the consequences of what happens when you put too many carbon emissions into the atmosphere.

In the United States, the majority of refugee immigrants come from Central and South America. The media has focused on political and economic factors that lead to immigration, but the contribution of climate change cannot be discounted. As damaging tropical storms and floods increase and sea levels rise, more and more people will be forced to leave Latin American countries and search for a home elsewhere. Many can be expected to end up in the United States, which has more economic resources to weather climate change impacts.

Europe is already seeing an increase in refugees from Africa, and again climate change is at least a partial culprit. In Africa droughts and associated food shortages, poverty, and desperation have contributed to political instability that can quickly turn livelihoods upside down and devastate communities. As with the United States, Europe can expect to see more and more climate change refugees enter its borders as carbon emissions build up in the atmosphere.

How should developing countries respond to this threat? First, leaders in Europe and North America must accept the inevitable: climate change is going to add to the number of refugees seeking safety in their countries. Figuring out how to absorb climate refugees with as little conflict as possible will be more productive than inventing new ways to prevent people from crossing the borders. Secondly, if they don’t want to see the problem balloon completely out of control developing countries had better get serious about reducing carbon emissions. As climate-related disasters sweep the globe, all nations of the world are going to feel the effects. It is up to major emitter countries to decide how bad those impacts will be.

Photo credit: Amantha Perera