Towards the end of this century, if current trends are not reversed, large parts of Bangladesh, the Philippines, Indonesia, Pakistan, Egypt and Vietnam, among other countries, will be under water. Some small island nations, such as Kiribati and the Marshall Islands, will be close to disappearing entirely. Swaths of Africa from Sierra Leone to Ethiopia will be turning into desert. Glaciers in the Himalayas and the Andes, on which entire regions depend for drinking water, will be melting away. Many habitable parts of the world will no longer be able to support agriculture or produce clean water.
The people who live there will not sit passively by while they and their children starve to death. Tens or hundreds of millions of people will try very hard to go somewhere they can survive. They will be hungry, thirsty, hot – and desperate. If the search for safety involves piling into perilous boats and enduring miserable and dangerous journeys, they will do it. They will cross borders, regardless of whether they are welcome. And, in their desperation, they could become violent: Forced migration can exacerbate ethnic and political tensions.
Our children and grandchildren could be confronting a humanitarian crisis unlike anything the world has ever faced. In the absence of the political will to prevent it, the least we can do is to start planning for it.
Rather than leaving vast numbers of victims of a warmer world stranded, without any place allowing them in, industrialised countries ought to pledge to take on a share of the displaced population equal to how much each nation has historically contributed to emissions of the greenhouse gases that are causing this crisis. According to the World Resources Institute, between 1850 and 2011, the United States was the source of 27 per cent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions; the European Union, 25 per cent; China, 11 per cent; Russia, 8 per cent; and Japan, 4 per cent.
To make calculating easy, let’s assume 100 million people will need new homes outside their own countries by 2050. Under a formula based on historic greenhouse gas emissions, the United States would take in 27 million people; Europe, 25 million; and so on. Even as a rough estimate, this gives a sense of the magnitude of the problem.
None of this would be popular, but it would be fair. Climate change results from the cumulative emissions of greenhouse gases all over the world, because the gases stay in the atmosphere for a century or more. International law recognises that if pollution crosses national borders, the country where it originated is responsible for the damages. That affirms what we all learnt in the schoolyard: if you make a mess, you clean it up. The countries that spewed (or allowed or encouraged their corporations to spew) these chemicals into the air, and especially the countries that grew rich while doing so, should take responsibility for the consequences of their actions. If they want to reduce the number of people in need of new homes, they should reduce their emissions.
Finding suitable land for resettlement will be immensely difficult. A population that needs to move might want to go to a place that is geographically similar to the place from which it came, where it can make the same sort of living as before, such as from fishing, farming or herding. Its members might also wish to go together and recreate their old communities. Yet, most of the habitable places on Earth are already inhabited, and moving a sizable population into an area that is already populated is not easy. The most prominent example of such a movement in modern history is Israel – a project that has not gone smoothly. Technologies such as desalination can make more areas habitable, but they typically take a great deal of money and energy, the very resource we have failed to conserve in the first place.
This problem will also require a new legal solution: Under current law, those displaced by climate change have no recognised legal status. The 1951 Refugee Convention applies only to people who are fleeing because of a well-founded fear of persecution. Non-binding guidelines have appeared on the treatment of people who cross borders as a result of climate change (the Nansen Principles) and who are displaced internally (the Peninsula Principles), but these have no force of law. A few countries have special arrangements to admit people from certain other countries. They aren’t specifically for climate-change refugees, but could be used in that situation. For example, the US has “compacts of free association” with the Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Palau. Australia and New Zealand have very small guest-worker programs. Temporary protected status or humanitarian visas might be available to some people for a limited time.
Press link for more: climatechange.searca.org