Global warming refugees - left to drown?

March 17, 2007

The Pacific island-nation of Tuvalu is the first country to have evacuated some of its citizens because of the sea-level rise driven by global warming. The highest point on the eight coral atolls that make up Tuvalu's 26 square kilometres of territory sits only five metres above sea level. Almost a quarter of the nation's population have already been evacuated and the remaining 8000 Tuvaluans may also have to leave in future years.

The 3000 Tuvaluans who have left are in the unenviable position of being considered by some environmentalists to be the world's first "environmental" or "climate" refugees. However, while the Tuvalu case has most dramatically illustrated the catastrophic impact of global warming, there can be little doubt that human-induced climate change is at least partially responsible for millions of other refugees in the world today.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's recently released Fourth Assessment Report (2007) found that the Earth's current average near-surface temperature rose by 0.74°C over the 20th century and are set to rise by a several degrees more over next 100 years. This rise is driving increased incidences of extreme weather events such as droughts, floods and more severe storms.

According to the World Disasters Report 2001, published by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, more people are now forced to flee their homes because of environmental disasters than war.

This problem is only set to worsen. While there is still time to mitigate the worst effects of global warming, scientists concede that the Earth is locked into some level of global warming, even if greenhouse gas emissions are rapidly and heavily reduced. This because of "atmospheric inertia", whereby the effect of the greenhouse gases currently in the atmosphere won't be felt immediately but in coming decades, as these gases — particularly the large amounts of extra carbon dioxide released by burning of fossil fuels — absorb solar radiation and heat the atmosphere.

The IPCC report concluded that climate change will bring water scarcity to 1.1-3.2 billion people by the end of the century; an additional 200-600 million people across the world are likely to face food shortages in another 70 years.

"The message is that every region of the Earth will have exposure", Dr Graeme Pearman, an Australian climatologists who helped draft the IPCC report, told Reuters in January, shortly before the report's release.

If the average temperature increase by 2°C by the end of the century (which is still far lower than the IPCC's Fourth Assessment Report worst-case-scenario of a 6.4°C rise), Pearman estimates that 100 million people would be "directly at risk from coastal flooding", particularly low-lying countries in the Pacific, most of Bangladesh and big cities such as Shanghai, Hamburg, Bangkok, Jakarta, Mumbai, Manila, Buenos Aires, London and Venice.

Oxford University's Norman Myers believes that the numbers of climate refugees could be as high as 200 million by 2050. It will be the poorest countries that will be the worst affected.

Unfortunately, despite the clear evidence that the impending catastrophe of climate change is rapidly gathering pace, there is no international recognition for climate refugees. The lack of formal recognition for the existence and rights of climate refugees has already been used as an excuse by Australia to turn its back on the plight of the Tuvaluans.

Canberra has so far refused to even discuss the issue with Tuvaluan officials let alone accept any refugees. The February 20 Sydney Morning Herald reported that Tuvaluan PM Maatia Toafa sought a meeting with Australian PM John Howard to discuss climate change and Tuvaluan refugees at the Pacific Islands Forum in Fiji last October. However, this was rejected.

It was the second time a meeting on the issue had been refused by Canberra.

Tuvalu has been forced to turn to New Zealand for help. While New Zealand has agreed to accept the whole of Tuvalu's population when the country becomes uninhabitable, current applicants for entry to New Zealand are subject to the conditions of the Pacific Access Category that covers Tuvalu, Fiji, Kiribati and Tonga.

The PAC only allows 75 people to emigrate from Tuvalu to New Zealand per year and imposes a series of stringent requirements on them including having a minimum level of English as well as the promise of full-time, permanent work.

Howard's heartless response, and New Zealand's highly conditional "generosity", indicates a worrying possibility — that wealthy countries that have gained the most from fossil-fuel use, and therefore contributed most to global warming. will simply strengthen their already fortress-like laws and institutions against the most vulnerable victims of climate change. These victims will overwhelmingly come from countries that have contributed the least to the problem.

The injustice of the situation is understandably stoking resentment among those who stand to lose their land and have their communities displaced and dispersed by a rise in seal level.

Next year, the 2000 residents of Carterets, five atoll islands in Papua New Guinea will begin to be relocated to Bougainville. For two decades, the Carteret islanders have fought a losing battle against storm surges and high tides that washed away homes, destroyed vegetable gardens and contaminated fresh water supplies.

The plight of the Carteret islanders "brings home the practical effects of climate change", Clare Goodess, from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, told the March 14 London Daily Telegraph. "It's something we are going to see more of."

"We are victims of something that we are not responsible for. We are bearing the brunt of all these [greenhouse] gas emissions" Bernard Galie from Piul Island in the Carterets told a visiting group of Friends of the Earth (FoE) Australia members last year.

According to FoE's 2006 publication Climate Justice: A fair share of the Atmosphere, the concept of "carbon debt" is vital to understanding wealthy countries' unnegotiable obligation to poor countries. The rich First World countries have contributed 80% of all human-generated CO2 emissions and are currently producing 60% of emissions despite only having a fifth the world's population.

Rich countries, which have the capacity to use their technological resources to invest in the development of relatively expensive renewable energy sources and other measures aimed at rapidly reducing greenhouse emissions, must take the lead in tackling the causes of climate change.

It is also the rich countries that should aid poorer countries to transition their economies to renewable energy sources as well, contribute to the UN's global climate change adaptation funds. So far only US$80 million has been pledged to these funds. The World Bank estimates that the total cost of adaptation, through "climate-proofing" development, will require $10-40 billion.

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