Climate change is already driving millions of people from their homes in poorer countries around the world.
That’s the warning sounded by a new report from charity Oxfam as world leaders prepare to meet for their latest complacent United Nations (UN) summit on climate change.
According to the Uprooted By Climate Change report, 23.5 million people “were displaced by weather-related disasters, including storms and floods,” last year. It calls climate change a “threat magnifier”, meaning that such disasters will only get more common.
People who can ride out one disaster may be forced to give up on their land when disasters come one after another.
That’s been the fate of many farmers in the Kralanh area of Cambodia. Successive floods and droughts since 2000 pushed swathes of farmers to abandon agriculture or sink into debt.
The report features case studies from Kiribati and the Torres Islands where people are watching roads, buildings and farmlands vanish.
They have tried to adapt by building sea-walls and moving further inland. But the Kiribati government has also had to develop a strategy for its people to migrate away with dignity.
The report warns that, “By one estimate, in the long term, sea-level rise resulting from 2°C of warming could submerge land that is currently home to 280 million people globally.”
In Bangladesh’s Rajbari region, farmer Seken Ali said, “Summer never used to be so hot, but this year we can hardly work in the fields in the morning. It is so hot that we get blisters all over our body.”
Both Oxfam and the International Organisation for Migration warn that the emergence of such “super-hot” areas could make life impossible even in some major cities.
Women are far more likely to die in disasters, or be marginalised or suffer violence in their aftermath. So are children, disabled people, and minorities that are discriminated against.
The figures are complex, reflecting the way the effects of climate change interact with existing injustices and inequalities. Some of the comparisons Oxfam makes stretch them to their limit.
For example, it says that the number of people displaced by extreme weather is triple the number displaced by conflict. But there is a huge overlap.
The report itself says that many of the regions hit by drought—for example in African states Chad and Somalia—are also hit by war. It points to how droughts can intensify the conflicts. But it’s equally the case that the wars make it harder for people to survive the droughts.
It’s the market and the institutions that enforce it that turn localised crop failures into famines. And it’s the cruel, racist and violent policies of our governments that make migration so traumatic.
The report’s warning is timely and valuable, but Oxfam’s solutions are inadequate.
It suggests swift action to limit global warming and legal protections, similar to those that exist in theory for refugees fleeing war.
But the governments negotiating them have proved themselves the deadly enemies of refugees. But world leaders have shown themselves unwilling or unable to take any meaningful action over global warming.
War refugees struggle to get their rights recognised and upheld by governments whose priority is keeping them out. And the complex nature of displacement will make harder for most people to prove they are straightforwardly a “climate refugee”.
The system that is creating the problem isn’t going to solve it. For the sake of humanity it must be destroyed.