Global warming is an observable fact threatening our future that much is certain. But, for many, climate change is affecting the here and now. More and more we are witnessing the human cost of climate change: human migration.
In 2008, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council, more than 20 million people were displaced by climate related natural disasters such as cyclones, heavy floods and rains. A report by the Environmental Justice Foundation claims global warming could create as many as 150 million refugees by 2050.
Most often the communities hit hardest are the poorest, lacking education on climate change, least able to adapt to changing circumstances and with the smallest carbon footprints on the planet.
Later on this year, the population of around 2500 of the Cartarel Islands, of Papua New Guinea, will be forced from their homes to neighbouring islands as their homes fall victim to rising sea levels. This will not only adversely affecting fishing, destroying plantation and therefore compromising future food sources, but is more tragically ‘swallowing’, as they say, the picturesque tropical island.
Murray Island, one of the 18 inhabited islands of the Torres Strait, lying between the far north-eastern tip of the Australian mainland and Papua New Guinea, with a total population of 7000 people is also feeling the effects of climate change. Inhabitants’ traditional ways of life living on the islands beaches is increasingly plagued by abnormally high tides flooding and eroding the islands and shifting seasons leaving inhabitants unsure as to when to plant crops.Changing animal migration patterns means birds, turtles and sea cows traditionally hunted for meat are now progressively scarce. One inhabitant claims it is usually customary to see hundreds of turtles on the beach during mating season, in 2008, however, she saw only 5 or 6.
Pacific ocean islands, such as Kiribati with a population of 100,000 and Tuvalu with a population of 11,000, are also suffering from rising sea levels engulfing their landsresulting in salt water mixing with groundwater, contaminating wells and food sources such as plants and trees beginning to die out. In 2007, over 3,000 Tuvaluans fled the island to the largest exile community in Auckland, New Zealand.
As of yet ,there are no extensive research studies into whether climate change is in fact behind this phenomenon and if these people are in fact ‘environmental refugees’. There are many that believe this phenomenon is a result of the natural movement of the Earth’s tectonic plates which is causing islands to ‘sink’.
However, research shows that the River Nile is also shrinking. The river, crucial to the economy in many parts of Uganda, Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, acting as a source of food and a means of producing a livelihood threatens these populations’ ways of life. Other parts of these countries increasingly suffer from rising temperatures attracting higher numbers of pests and mosquitoes leading to rising health problems and damaging crops local communities depend upon such as coffee crops in Uganda.
Other countries increasingly affected by climate change are Bangladesh, small island developing states such as the Maldives, which is witnessing the erosion of its coral reefs due to warmer waters, and the Seychelles.
According to the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), regions such as Darfur have been transformed from sustainable agricultural lands into partial deserts leading to tension and conflict over access to food and a means of generating a living
These ‘climate refugees’ grow increasingly scared that their identities and cultures, which they believe to be tied to their land, will be lost. Are we facing the extinction of our world’s different cultures?
It is clear that, before long, the observable trend of inhabitants forced from their homes due to climate change will inevitably become a human rights issue, one which remains at present underdeveloped. For this to happen however there remain legal complexities which must be solved before positive action can be taken such as who is or becomes responsible for these environmental refugees? Neighbouring countries? Who is then to blame for their forced displacement and obligated to provide compensation? Corporations that emit the greenhouse gases that have resulted in anthropogenic climate change? Changes will have to be made to international law to deal with the effects of climate change.
What is certain is that the futures of populations such as those mentioned remain uncertain and in the hands of those with the power to do something for them, namely developing nations.