The reality of climate change refugees once seemed like a distant threat that plagued small villages in far-away places, but with the recent wild fires that forced 80,000 people to flee Fort McMurray, the dangers of climate change have arrived at our front doors.
Climate change is having a variety of effects on the planet, including floods, wild fires, droughts and extreme storms. It has become a forefront topic of discussion because of the dangers this environmental phenomenon poses for civilization. Quite literally, nature is at war with us. Though discussion surrounding the reasons and potential effects of climate change are increasingly relevant, more of an emphasis is necessary surrounding climate refugees.
A climate refugee, as defined by the Global Governance Project 2012, is an “environmental migrant forced to move due to sudden or gradual alterations in the natural environment related to at least one of three impacts of climate change; sea-level rise, extreme weather events, and drought and water scarcity.” The impacts of climate change are causing refugees in the present, and it will only get worse if current temperatures continue to rise. The World Bank estimates that by 2050, 1.3 billion people will be at risk because of climate change related disasters.
In 2015 and 2016 alone, there were 19 million people displaced due to climate change. There was a severe migrant crisis in Syria influenced by war and drought, an earthquake in Nepal followed by an avalanche at Mt. Everest, drought in Ethiopia, floods in South Carolina, Texas, Oklahoma and Mozambique, and a heat wave in Southern India. Wild fires plagued the west last summer and earlier in May 2016, forced the entire city of Fort McMurray to evacuate.
Many climate refugees try to remain in their own country, and in the case of the residents of Fort McMurray, Canada has enough resources to help its displaced people. In other countries though, climate-induced disasters can be catastrophic because there is a lack of assets available to help distressed populations. Arguably, the Syrian crisis is the most prevalent example to date of the fate that awaits climate refugees. When a country is plagued with drought, a lack of resources, and an unaccommodating government, it is a recipe for war. The mass migration of Syrians to safer northern countries represents the beginning of a series of massive moves from southern regions to colder, northern climates.
A report on the extreme temperatures in the Middle East and North Africa was released in April 2016 that shows how the projected two-degree rise as a result of climate change by 2050 may actually be higher in the Middle East. With the current increase in temperature in the region, which includes 29 countries, the average summer temperature may rise to 50 degrees by 2050 and will become unliveable. If this occurs, people will be forced to move to other regions in the world, and compete for water and food resources. A strain on natural resources and the global economy will most likely follow.
We need to change. All of us are responsible to our planet, and we are looking at a global shift so extreme it may lead to our own extinction. Even as an environmentalist, I am at fault as well. Seeing various Facebook posts, tweets, and articles pop up that blame the oil industry for the fires in Fort McMurray, it isn’t justified. We all use the products that these natural companies produce whether or not we want to admit it. Making the world miners vs. environmentalists, west vs. east, and rich vs. poor is not going to help curb climate change. The blame game is a waste of time.
Instead, we need legislation to protect climate refugees. We need mandatory, international rights that ban countries from building fences to keep people out, and prevent people from being forced to walk from border to border with nowhere to go. On a global level, climate contracts like the 2015 Paris Agreement needs to address migrants as a central concern, instead of simply assigning a task force to the “discuss the issue”. Most importantly, we need to drop the us vs. them philosophy and unite together the way Canadians recently did in the Fort McMurray crisis.
On another level, we need to change our focus on resource consumption. Food, water, and natural resources need to be considered as valuable assets that should be shared by all, rather than limitless consumer goods that are solely at the disposable of the rich. If mass climate-caused immigration is imminent, we need to prepare and provide everyone with their equal share. Renewable resources need to be taken seriously, and not just used as dinner table talk for saavy environmental science majors.
Looking at the fire destroying a city in my home province of Alberta, it becomes clear. Nature is angry and she’s fighting back. As people, we are so consumed with arguing between each other that we can’t even hear nature’s roar. The question then becomes: when do we shut up and listen?