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Climate refugees

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Climate refugees are those fleeing the effects of climate change on their homes. This may happen due to one or more of:

  • Sea level rise causing a loss of land for habitation and crops
  • Desertification
  • Weather-induced flooding
  • Ecosystem and local climate disruption causing a change in availability or viability of food (fishing, [foraging], crops and/or livestock). Food security is a critical, immediate concern in many parts of the world.
  • Lack of drinking water.

Some of these problems can be overcome (see climate change mitigation) but others cannot.

Problems caused by climate have already contributed to large permanent migrations. Future climate refugees could eventually number in the hundreds of millions, by some estimates.

The first climate refugees[edit]

In early 2006, 980 residents of the Carteret Atolls began to evacuate to Bougainville,W Papua New Guinea.[1]. They were affected by minor rises in sea levels which caused erosion of land and soil salinization, reducing the viability of their agriculture.

Other communities which can expect to be hit soonest by rising sea levels include:

  • Tuvalu
  • Kiribati
  • Maldives - the highest point is 2 meters above sea level.
  • Bangladesh - it is estimated that 30 million people will be displaced if sea levels rise by one meter.


Protection measures such as sea walls (similar to the Dutch dykes) will help in some circumstances, but are prohibitively expensive to deploy over large areas and in poorer countries, such as Bangladesh.


The Maldives political leaders have lobbied for climate change to be recognized internationally as a human rights issue, but with little success. The Kiribati president has referred to climate change as a form of terrorism, and expressed frustration that while attacks on the US mobilized support, the threat of climate change has not brought about similar action, in the form of assistance from other countries, for vulnerable countries such as Kiribati.[2]

Refugees are defined in the UN's Refugee Convention[3] as people fleeing persecution. It is unlikely that this definition could be successfully argued, legally, to include those fleeing climate change.[2]Climate change: Indian Ocean, 29 November 2011.

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