State of the Climate 2014 Part 3: Climate Refugees

Summary for the time starved: Total refugees have increased from 42 million in 2010 to 50 million in 2014. It is difficult to classify the nature of the conditions that caused people to flee their homes. Some people appear to want to ‘claim’ refugees as victims of climate change inappropriately.

There is a logical case in theory for both the concept of and concern for climate refugees. If extreme weather events increase, more people will have to leave the areas where those events occur. Sadly, that is not the case that is being made throughout much of the media, by politicians and by organizations whose remit stands to expand if climate change is found to increase the number of refugees overall. However, if extreme weather events do increase, the number of climate refugees may be assumed to increase as well.

The logical case is simply put: “Natural disasters like Typhoon Haiyan—which devastated the Philippines in 2013—displace more people than war, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center in Geneva. And as climate change sets off increasingly lethal natural disasters, so will the numbers of environmental refugees increase, Reuters reported.

It is a reality that governments must prepare themselves for. In 2013, some 22 million people were displaced by extreme natural disasters like typhoons, earthquakes and tsunamis, a number three times the number of those who were forced to migrate because of war, according to the IDMC.

“Many more people in a growing population live more exposed to extreme weather,” Jan Egeland, the head of the Norwegian Refugee Council, which runs the IDMC, said this week at a conference in Oslo, Norway.”

However, the topic has been warped by some. There are those who seemingly wish to relabel those fleeing a storm as those forced to move because of sea level rise or other long term impacts of climate change. Perhaps even more disturbing is the effort to classify those fleeing conflict as climate refugees, as has happened with those fleeing Syria. Some have said that climate change was the cause of the Syrian conflict–or at least a major contributor (a concept I find amazingly off-target). They then want to classify the three million who fled the war in 2014 as climate refugees. I find that appallingly cynical. (I can believe that drought exacerbates tensions. I can’t believe that this is new to the Middle East. And I don’t believe that droughts have increased in intensity or frequency there.)


In 1988 a researcher named Jodi Jacobsen claimed there were 10 million environmental migrants and refugees. That mutated over the course of a decade to unsubstantiated claims by British environmentalist Norman Myers that there 25 million environmental refugees in the ’90s and that this would double by 2010 and perhaps reach 200 million by 2050.

However, their definition of ‘environmental refugee’ is fairly broad and includes circumstances quite different than assumed for ‘climate refugee’. The Wikipedia article on environmental migrants is actually quite good.

“The International Organisation for Migration proposes three types of environmental migrants:

  • Environmental emergency migrants: people who flee temporarily due to an environmental disaster or sudden environmental event. (Examples: someone forced to leave due to hurricane, tsunami, earthquake, etc.)
  • Environmental forced migrants: people who have to leave due to deteriorating environmental conditions. (Example: someone forced to leave due to a slow deterioration of their environment such as deforestation, coastal deterioration, etc.)
  • Environmental motivated migrants also known as environmentally induced economic migrants: people who choose to leave to avoid possible future problems. (Example: someone who leaves due to declining crop productivity caused by desertification)”

The large majority of current ‘environmental’ refugees are those forced to leave due to storms, etc. But only if extreme weather events are increasing could those be termed ‘climate refugees.’ And extreme weather events are not increasing. There are not more storms. The storms are not becoming stronger.

By more mutation, the earlier work has now transformed into claims that ‘climate refugees’ will number between 150 and 200 million by 2050, made by (of course) Stern et al 2006, several environmental NGOs and even the IPCC. In 2009, for example, an article in the Guardian labeled 20 million people displaced by natural disasters ‘climate refugees.’

But migrants are different from refugees–most of the time. They may get mixed together by some agencies, but they are not the same thing. So what about refugees?

The IOM estimated the numbers of refugees at 15.4 million internationally, with 27.5 million displaced within the borders of their native countries. However, in June of 2014 the UN marked World Refugee Day, noting that the number had exceeded 50 million for the first time since WWII. So the number has risen sharply in just four years, from 42 to 50 million.

But the UN didn’t talk about climate at all during that commemoration. “We are seeing here the immense costs of not ending wars, of failing to resolve or prevent conflict,” said UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres. “Peace is today dangerously in deficit. Humanitarians can help as a palliative, but political solutions are vitally needed. Without this, the alarming levels of conflict and the mass suffering that is reflected in these figures will continue.” …”Overall, the biggest refugee populations under UNHCR care and by source country are Afghans, Syrians and Somalis together accounting for more than half of the global refugee total.”

So, it would appear that:

  • There are two types of refugee that are being discussed (although other types of refugees do exist).
  • Refugees who leave their homes when a hurricane, typhoon or flood occurs (most temporarily–they return when conditions return to normal).
  • Refugees fleeing conflict.
  • The total number has increased from 42 million in 2010 to 50 million in 2013.
  • Current refugee counts are clearly dominated by conflict.

Clearly, more work is needed to identify the different types of conditions causing people to flee their homes.

However, that important work is obviously not as important as getting out there and providing material assistance to those afflicted. We should accept that this ambiguity exists for a reason and learn to live with it–and deal with the ‘greyness’ of these numbers rationally.


5 responses to “State of the Climate 2014 Part 3: Climate Refugees

  1. I think it was Kofi Annan who declared that war and ethnic cleansing in Darfur were caused by global warming.

  2. Climate refugee != Climate change refugee.

    They are intentionally obfuscated for political purposes.

  3. The morphing/misuse of terms like “refugee” into “climate refugee” is similar, I think, to when the old Roman Empire was going Catholic. A social problem that had long existed would be blamed not on behavior but on a spiritual condition. Blaming Darfur on “climate” simply helps avoid dealing with deeply rooted ethnic and religious cleansing. And of course blaming climate avoids admitting the failure of the UN or the international community to do anything timely about well known problems.

  4. Hiya hunter! It doesn’t stop there. They’re saying that the people fleeing Syria are climate refugees. Go figure.

  5. Pingback: Global Flooding Trends | The Lukewarmer's Way

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