Climate change is not a potential threat in the far future anymore. It is today’s reality. It is already affecting our daily lives. Europe’s heatwave back in June is one – fortunately still transient – stark reminder. For some people, the consequences of climate change are already pushing them to leave their degraded environment and move across countries to find safety. 

We often think of “refugee” as a distant category we will never belong to. Being a refugee is more than often associated with the distant Other. Yet, anyone can become a refugee. It is not something you are, but something that happens to you. And climate change is happening to all of us – although more for some than others. 

How is climate change displacing people? Who are climate refugees? What is being done to care for climate refugees? Here are 5 things you should know to understand one of humanity’s most pressing and upcoming challenges.

#1 Climate refugees are not… refugees

First things first, what does “refugee” actually mean? Under international law, a refugee is “someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion”. 

Are you being persecuted for your race, religion, nationality, political opinion or for being part of a specific group? Are you therefore unable to continue living safely in your country? If the answer is yes, you must be granted refugee status and protection by your host country. And, you may never be returned to a place where you could face torture, cruel or inhuman treatment (it’s called the principle of non-refoulement). Host countries must protect refugees not out of generosity, but out of legal (and hopefully moral) obligation

So what about people forcibly displaced by environmental factors? According to the official definition, degrading environments or climate change induced disasters are not persecuting agents. Therefore, those whose displacement is caused by environmental factors are, by definition, not refugees. But can a definition drawn in 1951 be fair to current displacement realities? Without recognition, people forcibly displaced by environmental factors are not guaranteed protection. As the consequences of climate change are displacing more and more people, there is still no international agreement on how to deal with this predicted and now tangible reality. 

So what term should we use? Climate migrant or climate refugee? Although categorically incorrect, using the term climate refugee is the belief that anyone suffering from the consequences of climate change is entitled to protection – even more when this degradation is the result of man-made (in)actions.

#2 Climate displacement is caused by two types of climate disasters

Sudden-onset climate disasters happen suddenly and quickly cause major disruptions to normal life. It refers to events like hurricanes, wildfires, floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions etc. When these events happen, affected people tend to migrate within their own country. 

Slow-onset climate disasters are not caused by a single event. They build up and occur slowly. People are slowly but steadily pushed into increasing distress and beyond their normal coping capacities. Slow-onset disasters include droughts which trigger food insecurity or desertification and sea-level rise which reduce habitable land and viable livelihoods. Pacific islands like Tuvalu or Kiribati are a stark example of slow-onset climate disasters – slowly disappearing under the sea. 

© UNDP Tuvalu / Aurélia Rusek

#3 Climate refugees mostly come from the regions less responsible for climate change

Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America are the regions most affected by climate change. Unequipped developing regions, which have often contributed the least to global warming, are those who suffer the most from the consequences of climate change – and the social, economic and security challenges it entails. 

The statistics are staggering. Between 1990 and 2015, the wealthiest 1% of the world’s population were responsible for 15% of carbon emissions, nearly twice as much as the world’s poorest 50%, who were responsible for just 7%

Climate justice is about demanding accountability from the states whose carbon emissions have transformed climate refugees’ lands. Climate justice does not only require efforts to reduce emissions and limit global warming, but also bridging development gaps, restoring ecosystems and helping people adapt in the most affected regions

Climate displacement is far from being or becoming a crisis unique to these areas of the world. For instance, sea-level rise threatens to displace people in Northern Europe. Climate change does not spare anyone. But some are much better equipped to face it.

#4 80% of people displaced by climate change are women

Climate change is not gender neutral. Why are women and girls more vulnerable to climate change?

First, women are less likely to be involved in decisions about how to prevent, mitigate and cope with climate change – meaning that gender-specific perspectives and issues are often unaddressed. 

Second, women and girls often do most of the subsistence farming in low-income countries and are the main providers of food, water and fuel – meaning that they bear the brunt of extreme and inconsistent weather patterns and resource scarcity. As mothers struggle more and more to secure resources, girls are often forced to drop out of school to help out. 

Third, women displaced by disasters face an increased risk of gender-based violence including domestic violence, sexual violence, forced and early marriage and human trafficking. 

Climate change is a real threat to global development and gender equality. Responses to the consequences of climate change need to take into account gender-specific issues to help build affected communities’ resilience to climate change and reduce climate-induced displacement.

#5 It is hard to say how many people will be displaced by climate change

Climate displacement is not a new phenomenon. It has been there (literally) from the beginning of time. Environmental factors have always influenced where humans settle across the world. What is new is the accelerated rhythm of climate displacement. 

But it is hard to estimate the number of people on the move today or in the future as a result of environmental factors. On one hand, the reasons for migration are often difficult to untangle. Climate stressors often add to conflicts, political instability, fragile economic development and human rights abuses. The direct causal link between climate stressors and displacement is often not so obvious. In fact, there is seldom one single reason for which people decide to leave their homes. On the other hand, climate displacement happens most of the time within a country rather than across international borders – and this movement is often not officially documented. 

Nevertheless, here are some numbers and predictions. In 2020, environmental disasters forced around 30.7 million people to move – twice as many as displacements caused by conflict and violence. 

New displacements in 2020: Breakdown for conflict, violence and disasters / IDMC

The Institute for Economics and Peace finds that, by 2050, 1.2 billion people will be unable to withstand the impact of climate change and will be likely to migrate because of it. With an estimated world’s population of 9.8 billion people in 2050, that will mean 12% of the world’s population will be climate refugees

Climate displacement is not inevitable. Collective action to help affected regions equip themselves and mitigate the effects of climate change is decisive to help reduce climate displacement. Together or nothing.