There is no international legal definition of “climate refugee.”
The Environmental Justice Foundation defines climate refugees as “persons or groups of persons who, for reasons of sudden or progressive climate-related change in the environment that adversely affects their lives or living conditions, are obliged to leave their habitual homes either temporarily or permanently, and who move either within their country or abroad.”
The Hague Institute for Global Justice considers climate refugees to be “people who have had to flee their homes due to environmental factors that can be partially attributed to climate change, such as drought, extreme weather conditions and natural disasters”, and notes that The International Displacement Monitoring Centre estimates their number at around 20 million people a year.
Why do they flee? Hunger, for a start. Our changing climate makes droughts more frequent and longer lasting, with devastating effects on crops. Warmer conditions can also favor pests, such as the desert locust in Africa. A small locust swarm can consume as much food as 35,000 people eat in a day.
Already, struggles over dwindling supplies of fresh water, fertile cropland, food and other necessities spark revolts, oppression, violence, ethnic cleansing, and civil wars. In the future, as still more people will have to survive on less, we are likely to see yet more migration … and, possibly, more violent “solutions” to refugee problems, as refugees are increasingly unwanted and unwelcome.
Not every refugee problem, not every conflict, can be directly ascribed to climate change, but climate change is clearly a contributing factor to these human disasters.
While climate problems weigh most heavily upon poor countries, developed countries are not immune to them. In the American Midwest in the 1930’s, several years of severe drought and soil erosion turned the topsoil into great clouds of dry black dust, darkening the sky. Thousands of farmers had take to the road to seek survival. The American folk singer Woody Guthrie composed a tribute to these early climate refugees.