This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 220 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.
ROME—Manu remembers vividly the grim conditions he faced when he left coastal Bangladesh just three years ago to try to start a new life in Europe. The 45-year-old woodworker was one of millions of people in his South Asian country who had, for years, adjusted to seasonal flooding, moving in and out of their homes as the higher tides passed with the seasons. But in recent years, the rising seas didn't subside, and Manu lost his home, his belongings and finally his livelihood when trees vital to his craft disappeared under the rising sea.
In 2016, Manu made his way to Italy where he requested asylum, which very likely won’t be granted. “There isn’t even a category on the application to request protection from the changing climate,” he told The Daily Beast. “No one even recognizes the problem.”
Some do, in fact, but too few, and global society cannot ignore the problem much longer. The World Bank estimates that by the year 2050, at least 143 million additional migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and Latin America—already the greatest migrant and refugee-producing areas—will be on the move because of rising seas, droughts, and extreme weather.
Adding to the injustice for those most affected is the fact that the climate change crisis is not the fault of those on the move. Founder and executive director of the Environmental Justice Foundation, Steve Trent, tells The Daily Beast that the poorer communities, affected first and worst, are those least able to mitigate the impacts of the heating planet.
“The world’s least developed countries produce only a fraction of greenhouse gas emissions and have had far fewer of the benefits reaped by richer countries from our addiction to carbon, yet they are suffering the worst impacts of the climate crisis,” says Trent. “This summer, entire villages in India were abandoned, leaving only the sick and the elderly, as the country baked in 50°C [122°F] heat. Right now in the Bahamas, the death toll in the wake of Hurricane Dorian is expected to [continue to] rise dramatically.”
Trent points to the fact that the European Union alone was responsible for 40 percent of all global C02 emissions between 1850 and 2011. “Yet in an unjust world, 99 percent of all deaths from weather-related disasters occur in the world’s 50 least developed countries,” he says. “Countries that have contributed less than 1 percent of global carbon emissions. This is not justice.”
A new doomsday report by the World Bank’s climate scientists, migration experts and statistical researchers paints a picture of what's to come so dire it verges on the apocalyptic. According to Kanta Kumari Rigaud, the World Bank’s lead environmental specialist who compiled the report, events like crop failures due to droughts or floods will create what he calls “hotspots” that force people to move at first within national borders. Most will be go from rural to urban areas, but that influx will create new concentrations of poverty and cause people to start moving beyond borders.
To meet this challenge, the report suggests, many urban areas and their environs need to prepare for an influx of people with improved housing and transportation infrastructure, social services, and employment opportunities. If managed correctly, the migration could create a “positive momentum” in some areas facing depopulation. But in others, it will only put additional burdens on already overwhelmed systems.
Look at the recent global migration crises that have relatively little to do with climate change, and the way those have shaken developed nations. The rise of the xenophobic extreme right in Europe was spawned in part by the 2015 influx of a million refugees, largely from war-torn Syria.
Central Americans trying to reach the United States by way of Mexico have faced a figurative and perhaps soon-to-be physical wall. Rohingya people fleeing inter-communal wars in Burma were met by some of the most abhorrent human rights violations since the Holocaust.
To date, sub-Saharan Africans fleeing war and poverty trying to reach Europe though Italy have been met with harsh policies and closed ports, but only a fraction were fleeing the impact of a changing climate. Now, as a recent report by UNHCR, the U.N. refugee agency, points out, drought is compounding security woes and people are fleeing to Ethiopia. Many will then try to move on to Europe.
Now imagine the extra migration pressures imposed by “natural” disasters related to climate change. The U.N. today counts 68.5 million forcibly displaced people in the world due to war, poverty, and natural disasters. Imagine tripling that figure.
Some migrants will have it much harder than others. The United Nations special rapporteur on poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, warns of a disaster made worse by wage disparity. “We risk a ‘climate apartheid’ scenario where the wealthy pay to escape overheating, hunger and conflict while the rest of the world is left to suffer,” he wrote in a report to the U.N. in June. “Perversely, while people in poverty are responsible for just a fraction of global emissions, they will bear the brunt of climate change, and have the least capacity to protect themselves.”
Alston also warns that climate change will impact democracies as governments try to cope with the consequences. Aid agencies have yet to define what it means to be a climate migrant or refugee, and without crucial designations there won't be policies and legal protections.
“Most human rights bodies have barely begun to grapple with what climate change portends for human rights, and it remains one on a long laundry list of ‘issues,’ despite the extraordinarily short time to avoid catastrophic consequences,” Alston said when he presented his report. “As a full-blown crisis that threatens the human rights of vast numbers of people bears down, the usual piecemeal, issue-by-issue human rights methodology is woefully insufficient.”
UNHCR has been reluctant to designate the new category for people moving due to climate change.
John Podesta, founder and director of the Center for American Progress, outlined the issue of classification in a recent report for the Brookings Institution.
“The UNHCR has thus far refused to grant these people refugee status, instead designating them as ‘environmental migrants,’ in large part because it lacks the resources to address their needs,” Podesta wrote. “But with no organized effort to supervise the migrant population, these desperate individuals go where they can, not necessarily where they should. As their numbers grow, it will become increasingly difficult for the international community to ignore this challenge.”
He believes the international community will be forced either to redefine what a refugee is to include climate migrants or create a new category and institutional framework to protect climate migrants.
“However, opening that debate in the current political context would be fraught with difficulty,” he said in the report. “Currently, the nationalist, anti-immigrant, and xenophobic atmosphere in Europe and the U.S. would most likely lead to limiting refugee protections rather than expanding them.”
All agencies that eventually will be tasked with managing the new migration have reached the same conclusion: the developed world has to act to cut emissions and stave off the apocalyptic disaster in the making. But vulnerable countries need to act, too.
The World Bank is helping Bangladesh, which is projected to produce a third of South Asia’s climate migrants by 2050, to develop a “Perspective Plan for 2041,” that, while pessimistic, recognizes that people need to start moving away from coastal areas in order to integrate and find new skills. Mexico is also working on a plan towards adaptation, which will help retrain workers who rely on industries that will disappear as the real effects of climate change take hold.
The World Bank says that if the industrialized world starts to act by cutting greenhouse gases now and integrating a climate migration contingency into all development plans, the inevitable disaster does not have to become a worst case scenario.