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This August I spent a few weeks working in the refugee camp in Calais known as ‘The Jungle’. The amount of policing, fencing and havoc at the normally quiet port would suggest there was a whole country worth of people in the camp. However, the population of the Jungle is only 10,000. But this article is not about these refugees, it is about the mass migration that is about to accelerate out of control due to climate change, expected to displace up to 200 million people by 2050 according to prominent British environmentalist Norman Myers. The comparatively minute amount of refugees already causing political and social upheaval all over Europe highlight that these climate refugees are a serious issue that we must address.

Climate and Policy

According to the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees of 1951, a refugee is narrowly defined as a person who;

“owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country”

This definition does not give the protection of refugee status to those who have to flee their homes due to natural disasters, destruction of wildlife, flooding and submersion of land or any other environmental cause that many would see as viable reasons for seeking asylum. These events cause millions of people to leave their homes every year but, as it currently stands, they will find it extremely hard to resettle in another country due to their legal label as migrants. There is an enormous protection gap that is trapping a large amount of the world’s population in some of the worst environmental conditions we have ever seen. The first step should be to set up an international organisation to represent these people who are at the moment shamefully isolated. Part of the reason the refugees in Europe have become such a humanitarian crisis is due to a lack of existing legislation relating to mass migrations. We should be vigilant and be prepared for climate refugees rather than turn to isolationism and xenophobia.

Climate and Conflict

It is notoriously difficult to accurately qualify people as climate refugees, but projections for mid-century refugees range from 25 million to as high as 1 billion. If one specifically looks at direct causes such as natural disasters, in 2014 alone almost 20 million people were displaced including 542,000 from Bangladesh due to flooding. Further, many of the world’s most recent conflicts and the refugees that come with them have the effects of global warming as the initial cause of civil unrest. The widespread drought and food insecurity in Nigeria are seen as major contributors to the socio-economic condition that lead to the emergence of Boko Haram and the violent insurgency in the North-East of the country.

Photo: UN Photo/Stuart Price.

Members of the Nigerian battalion of the United Nations-African Union Hybrid Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) on patrol during a community meeting between UNAMID officials and Arab nomads. 16/Mar/2008. UN Photo/Stuart Price. www.unmultimedia.org/photo/

Food insecurity and price volatility also helped to initiate the Arab-spring uprisings. At the moment, most migration that occurs in affected countries happens internally due to temporary causes and one-off events. However, as global warming starts to inflict more permanent damage we will start to see international refugee crises on a frightening scale. A greater appreciation and investigation into the link of climate change with socio-economics should be prioritised so that predictions can be made to help a coherent strategy and help those most at risk.

Climate and Inequality

Unfortunately the countries plagued by global warming are also the most impoverished. Since addressing the internal instabilities of these countries is of no concern to the major political powers, neither are the ecological ones that caused them. This is epitomised by the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s statement at a climate conference in Indonesia “The issue of equity is crucial. Climate affects us all, but does not affect us all equally.”

Climate Vulnerability Map by https://www.digitalmethods.net/Dmi/MappingClimateConflictVulnerabilityAndVictims

For islands in the Pacific and Caribbean, the 2°C global temperature increase is not just an aim to avoid the most disastrous effects of climate change, it is the point at which they will cease to survive. Rising sea levels in the Maldives which is just a few meters above sea-level has been a primary concern for President Nasheed who said people in his country did not want to “trade a paradise for a climate refugee camp” to try and implore governments to act upon their emission targets. If sea levels rise 23 inches, the whole archipelago will rest beneath the sea forever with 16 islands already abandoned. The Maldives has already bought land in Australia to prepare for the mass migration that unfortunately is most likely inevitable, a solution that seems completely insane in the age that we live in.

The novel move to include smaller nations in climate talks proved extremely successful at COP21 in Paris for moving talks forward and their role should be increased further. Treading carefully on the use of the word ‘refugee’ is important for everyone as the term can often be seen as degrading. A societal realisation and appreciation of the unique situation of these people will encourage politicians to view it not just with sympathy but also esteem. Further, public pressure on our representatives to bring up this topic, as well as general climate action, at international talks will catalyse much needed discussion and is an effective way for people to aid the situation.


Political unrest, civil war and mass migration may not be what we usually associate with climate change but that is soon to change. So far, they are consequences that have been completely ignored in international climate conferences with the agreement at COP21 not even mentioning the words “migrant” or “refugee”. Yet, we are potentially looking at refugee crises on a scale we have never seen before. Globalisation and climate change are the hidden cogs of disorder. They challenge the status quo and require much more in the way of dynamic policy than we see today. With COP22 in the near future, let’s hope to see the development of models to help understand the complex relationship of conflict, socio-economic conditions and climate, detailed plans on how to prepare those most at risk and concrete policy recognising some of the most vulnerable in our society all included on the agenda.

Julian Godding

About Julian Godding

Julian is a chemistry student at Oxford University and President of the Oxford Climate Society. He became interested in climate back at school when I found out how much the food industry contributed to global warming and I became a vegetarian. He enjoys investigating the complex relationship of socio-economics and the climate on a global scale.