The world must act to protect climate change victims

Climate change is likely to lead to the killing and displacement of millions of people around the world. Sweden's new government has a great opportunity to bring the concept of environmental refugees to the world's attention, argues Fiona Rotberg of Uppsala University..

In the last weeks, there has been a flurry of reports in the media about international environmental issues and the global catastrophe that could result from inaction on climate change. This much needed discourse has been heartening.

Sir Nicholas Stern of Britain, for example, on October 30, released a damning review of the economics of climate change. Stern estimated that the costs of climate change range between 5% and 20% of global output over the next one to two centuries.

Last week, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan announced broad measures to help Africa address and adapt to climate change and environmental issues. The Economist reported that the violence that has ravaged Darfur is now spilling over its borders and that the underlying cause of the conflict in the region is due to conflict over scarce natural resources, such as water and land for grazing animals. The natural and physical world is different from how it once was.

A direct result of conflicts that arise from scarce natural resources, as in Darfur, will likely be more killing and more displaced people. It is commendable that some world leaders are addressing the local, national, and international need for action on environmental issues. However, the flurry of discourse has not adequately addressed the issue of such displaced people who will become the newest wave of refugees – environmental refugees.

Millions of people around the world depend on scarce natural resources for their very livelihoods. When there are fewer resources to go around, competition for them can often lead to violent conflicts within a country’s borders, and across borders.

These same people who depend on natural resources will be hit hard by global climate change; droughts will be longer, heat will be harsher, rainy seasons will be shorter; crops will be insignificant. This is the reality of the complex world with climate change. When they have nothing left to live on, where shall these people go?

Sweden’s new government has a vital opportunity to bring the concept of environmental refugees to the international agenda; to raise the issue within the European Union and the United Nations.

The 1951 United Nations Convention and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees provides sanctuary to persons at risk and in danger. Both of these instruments reflect the global consensus that human beings have fundamental rights. These are the only instruments at the global level that specifically regulate treatment of those who are compelled to leave their homes because of a rupture within their country of origin.

International refugee protection is as necessary today as it was in 1951. The definition of a refugee is rooted in the notion of persecution, which excludes the new reality of enforced flight of civilians due to environmental degradation, exacerbated by climate change.

A new definition must be devised to incorporate the concept of environmental refugees; a direct and unavoidable consequence of climate change and conflict associated with it. The Swedish government is well poised to contribute to the present environmental discourse, it can shepherd a new definition of refugees to include factors of today’s complex world.

Dr. Fiona J.Y. Rotberg is the Director of the Environmental Security in Asia project, at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Program, Eurasian Studies Department, Uppsala University. The views expressed in this article are her own.