Human rights of climate change refugees

Your report on desiccation in Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin (11 July 2008) highlights the collapse of small-town economies and abandonment of farmlands on a huge scale.  This may well prove to be only one stage in the irreversible desertification of much of that continent.  Similar phenomena are underway in the south-western USA as well as in great swathes of Africa, Asia and, to judge by the ongoing drought in Spain and recent forest fires in Greece, in southern Europe.

These expanding hot-spots are consistently predicted by climate-change models, along with increased storminess in many areas as a result of a warming ocean, and rising sea levels that force salt water into ever-larger areas of coastal farmland.  These changes are bound to displace people as their livelihoods become untenable, and the numbers involved are likely to reach many millions annually before long.

In computing its optimistic guess that the world population will be about 9.2 billion in 2050, the United Nations assumes that an ageing population of about 1.2 billion in what are now developed countries will be supplemented by a net inflow of 2.3 million immigrants each year from what are now less developed countries.  These immigration numbers seem highly unrealistic in view of the impact of climate change on human settlement patterns, which the UN is only now starting to factor into its population predictions.

While many environmental refugees will be absorbed within their own countries, or within Europe if they are EU citizens, they will often suffer greatly in the process while also piling pressure on the ecosystems to which they have moved.  Many others, who have nowhere at all to go, will need to move across national frontiers, fuelling an unstoppable tidal surge of immigration across the world.

One can imagine governments making increasingly draconian efforts to keep these people out or move them on, so that they die elsewhere, but at a dire cost of justice and sustainability.  All governments should instead be planning in detail how to absorb and cater for the human rights of large numbers of environmentally displaced people, while also re-tripling their efforts to bring climate change under control and adapt to its now-inevitable effects.

Julian Caldecott, 11 July 2008