Climate refugees is not a new term but get used to hearing it more often

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL September 22, 2020

A climate activist lays on an inflatable world globe in front of the Swiss House of Parliament at the start of a week of demonstrations called “Rise up for change” on September 21, in Bern. Fabrice Coffrini / AFP

This is officially Climate Week and it’s brought to the world by the United Nations and New York City, on the sidelines of the ongoing, virtual 75th UN General Assembly. Unofficially, climate week now runs throughout the year in some form or other, somewhere — an extreme weather event, a call to action, or a heated argument about whether global warming is a fact.

But this Climate Week is arguably different. A firestorm is sweeping the usual debates about climate change, as the US presidential campaign, America in general and the world as a whole is confronted with new visions of apocalypse — on the TV news and on the internet. America’s west coast is burning.

So is Siberia, as far north as the Arctic Circle. And so are Brazil’s Pantanal wetlands, one of the most bio-diverse areas in the world. In July, forest fires caused an Indonesian province on Borneo island to declare a state of emergency. Earlier this year, enormous tracts of the Australian continent were ablaze.

Each seems like the local chapter of an increasingly familiar global story, one in which large parts of the world are on fire. And in 2020, which is expected to be among the five warmest years on record, each raging fire appears to show that the planet is getting hotter, drier and more inhospitable.

Consider California’s customary fire season. It has become the state’s most destructive in modern memory and it is still only halfway done. Six of the state’s 10 largest wildfires have happened since 2018 and five were just this year. Millions of acres have burned, with the fires spreading into neighbouring Oregon and Washington, wreaking destruction on businesses and homes and leaving landscapes akin to Hawaii’s famous black sand beaches, except that these are charred and smoking. Even though the world’s most polluted cities are typically in Asia, in the past week, Portland, Oregon had significantly worse air quality than any other city in the world.

The fires pumped an estimated 110 million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and the smoke blew all the way from the west to cities on America’s east coast, creating hazy conditions and weirdly orange skies in Washington, DC and New York. According to satellite data from the European Union’s Copernicus atmospheric monitoring services, the smoke travelled as far as northern Europe. Meanwhile, the towering fires forced the evacuation of tens of thousands of people. With the Red Cross on the ground and struggling to find shelter for more displaced people than there were hotel rooms, the volunteers were often heard using a word that might seem odd in the richest country in the world. “Refugees”, they called the Americans displaced by the historic blaze.

Refugees is the right word but it has entered public consciousness way too late. Back in 2015, then US secretary of state John Kerry was warning a foreign ministers’ conference in Alaska to prepare for “climate refugees”.

It will keep getting worse, as long as we keep adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere

That was the year an estimated two million people fleeing the Syrian civil war would pour into Europe. But that migration, according to a 2015 paper in the ‘Pro­ceedings of the National Academy of Sciences’, an American journal, was initially from the hinterland into Syrian cities.

Syrians in rural areas were desperate after “the worst three-year drought in the instrumental record”, the researchers wrote, identifying “a long-term drying trend” as well as a “warming trend in the Eastern Mediterranean (caused by the increase in greenhouse gases)”.

Decades of state-decreed, water-intensive agricultural practices had led to the unsustainable depletion of groundwater and the drying of the Khabur river in north-eastern Syria. Crops failed and the farmers moved to the cities.

As with all migration, this triggered tensions and eventually, massive unrest. So, when Mr Kerry declared that “we as leaders of countries will begin to witness what we call climate refugees”, he was using the wrong tense. The world was already witnessing climate refugees. The phenomenon was not in the future.

In any case, Mr Kerry was five years late in drawing attention to the issue of climate refugees. In 2010, Frank Bierman, an environmental policy professor at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, led controversial research that warned there may be as many as 200 million climate refugees by 2050. He recommended the creation of an interna­tional resettlement fund. An ambitious but poorly funded nest egg of sorts was subsequently set up by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

But it was only in 2018 that the UN negotiated a global migration treaty that became the first to recognise climate as a cause of future displacement. The US refused to join 164 other countries in signing it.

The myopia of America, led by US President Donald Trump, is both outrageous and tragic as its burning west coast is creating climate refugees, albeit those seeking haven within their country’s borders.

Last year was the first time in a decade that more people left California for other US states than arrived. And however high the walls that America builds to keep foreign climate refugees out, there will continue to be an inexorable flow from water-stressed, hungry parts of central America towards the vast, rich country next door.

New projections for global climate-induced migration range from 50 million to 300 million in the next few decades. It is telling that Philip Duffy, head of the Woodwell Climate Research Centre in Massachusetts, recently rejected the idea that raging fires, melting Arctic sea ice, simultaneous hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean and the hottest summer in the northern hemisphere could be described as “the new normal”. It is not, he said, because “it will keep getting worse, as long as we keep adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere”.

So climate week seems doomed to stretch into decades. Sometimes, it is novelists who tell the future. Margaret Atwood ended her acclaimed ‘MaddAddam’ trilogy about a dystopian post-pandemic world on fire as follows: “The people in the chaos cannot learn. They cannot understand what they are doing to the sea and the sky and the plants and the animals. They cannot understand that they are killing them, and that they will end by killing themselves.”

Fiction is becoming fact before our eyes.

Rashmee Roshan Lall is a columnist for The National

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