The planet is warming at an unprecedented rate, and this will have enormous impact: By the middle of this century, an estimated 150 to 200 million people may become permanently displaced due to rising sea levels, frequent floods, and intense droughts. Already, according to the International Red Cross and Red Crescent, as many people are forced to leave their homes due to environmental disaster and natural resource scarcity as flee political oppression, religious persecution, and ethnic troubles combined.
As the earth warms, there has been a shift in weather patterns-over the last century, declining rainfall in the Sahel, the Mediterranean, Southern Africa, and parts of Southern Asia. The southwest United States is facing the driest conditions in more than a century, and Australia is suffering a drought that some have proclaimed to be the worse in 1,000 years. In Africa, by 2020, between 75 million and 250 million people will experience water shortages due to climate change. And the decrease in water supplies will affect food production; a global temperature increase between 2 and 3 degrees Celsius would put 30 to 200 million people at risk of hunger.
Many analysts believe that a temperature rise of more than 2 degrees Celsius-and none of the scenarios projected by the respected Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change show a future with an increase under 2 degrees-could result in sea level rising above 5 meters. This would threaten 270 million people, about one-twentieth of the world's entire population.
Areas like Bangladesh, Egypt, Vietnam, and several small islands in the Pacific will face massive departure of people. And storms, currently the costliest weather catastrophes, are likely to become more powerful as the ocean warms.
Currently, the majority of host countries of environmental refugees are developing countries because they border the countries refugees are fleeing. But the developed countries of the world are primarily responsible for the vast carbon footprint they have stamped onto the earth; they need to be part of the solution, not just the cause of the problem. And environmental refugees need-but currently do not have-the same protections and rights as those refugees who faced persecution from their own governments.
Unfortunately, there is little official recognition by governments, international agencies, or laws that an environmental refugee problem exists or is imminent. There is a need to address this issue now.
Robert Bolognese is a lawyer who has done advocacy work for the Lutheran Immigration Refugee Service and is active in promoting legislation to fight climate change. He blogs at www.theecoeconomy.blogspot.com about the environment and the economy.