Climate Change: It’s Not Just an Environmental Issue; It’s a Human Rights Issue, too

Will the Global Community Acknowledge Climate Refugees?

Climate change is amplifying the intensity of extreme weather events. Its impacts are now being seen in both poorer and developed countries. This year, Hurricane Sandy rendered more than 40,000 people homeless in New York City alone and just last week over 310,000 people lost their homes to Typhoon Bopha in the Philippines. Last year weather-related disasters, mainly floods and storms, displaced 13.8 million people. That’s more than the total number of residents in Illinois. Now, consider for a moment that the entire population of Illinois lost everything: their land, their homes, their possessions, their livelihoods. Where would those people go? To what would they be entitled and where?

These people forced from their homes by environmental insecurity are often referred to as “climate refugees” and “environmental refugees”. However, these terms are neither defined nor recognized by international law. Despite their numbers, these people have neither the recognition nor protections of refugees under international legal definitions and yet they have been forced to migrate because of climate related problems. They are refugees.

The hard lesson we must learn from our collective past is that our lifestyle choices have tangible impacts on others. Nothing demonstrates this better than the impacts of climate change. Our industrialization, development and consumerism have a price – but we in the developed world are not paying it. Instead, some of the world’s poorest countries are being made more vulnerable.

Rising temperatures, erratic rainfall, increased drought and desertification and more intense flooding and storms have a real human impact. There are large parts of the world where life is getting harder: faced with either too much water and floods, or too little water and nothing to drink, or occasionally both. Experiencing food insecurity, declining health and even the direct threats to their lives from extreme conditions or the conflicts that are blossoming in climate chaos – witness the violence of Darfur or slow tragedy being played out in the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya where nearly half a million people barely survive. Faced with drought, the loss of their precious livestock and famine these people had no choice but to move.

Boys make a path across a flooded slum in Khulna
Children lay out stepping stones across a flooded slum in Khulna, the third largest city in Bangladesh. Many climate refugees have no other option but to move to urban slums, pushing them even further into poverty.

I believe that environmental security is a human right. Climate change will drive hundreds of millions of people from their homes as this century progresses – each the victim of either too much water or too little and as world leaders have just concluded another round of climate negotiations in Doha and have failed to build protection for the most vulnerable it is clear we are not doing enough to protect and assist climate refugees.

Although the negotiations have resulted in a formal acknowledgement from the USA and other developed nations that there will be a bill to pay for the havoc that will come from climate change and they will have to pick up at least some of tab, crucially, the talks have not shown the political leadership and ambition we need. They have failed to create a path from recognising the causes and costs of climate change to delivering the funds and the action to solve these. We now need our leaders to actually lead, fulfill the responsibilities they accepted on taking political office and act – now.

We need to remember that among the greatest threats to our collective rights and in particular to the rights of the poor, the weak and the vulnerable, is climate change. And why we must remember it is so important that the international community acts to recognise, support and protect the world’s growing number of climate refugees.

EJF’s report A Nation under Threat: The impacts of climate change on human rights and forced migration in Bangladesh has been launched today (10/12/12), along with actor Ashley Jensen and Members of the European Parliament Jean Lambert and Ska Keller, to mark the occasion. It calls on world leaders to take urgent action on climate change as a human rights issue. For more information go to: www.ejfoundation.org/climate/human-rights-day

Images courtesy of Environmental Justice Foundation

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