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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Environmental Refugees

Air Date: Week of

Scholars predict fifty million people will be displaced within five years by rising sea levels, desertification, dried up aquifers, and other serious environmental change. The term “environmental refugees” has increasingly been invoked over the last two decades to describe growing waves of people displaced by environmental problems. Host Steve Curwood talks with Andrew Simms. He’s the Policy Director of the New Economics Foundation in the United Kingdom and the author of a recent book entitled, “Environmental Refugees: The Case for Recognition”.


CURWOOD: Fifty million people forced to migrate by environmental calamities. That’s the prediction of some scholars of the number of people who will become "environmental refugees” within five years, thanks to rising sea levels, desertification, dried up aquifers, and other serious environmental changes.

And it has officials at the United Nations University in Germany urging the international community to take responsibility for these displaced people and the problems that drive them from their homes.

Among those putting out that call is Andrew Simms. He’s the Policy Director of the New Economics Foundation in the UK and author of the book, “Environmental Refugees: The Case for Recognition.” We caught up with him at a café in London. Thanks for taking the time, Mr. Simms.

SIMMS: You’re welcome.

CURWOOD: Fifty million. Who are these people, and where are they coming from?

SIMMS: What we’re looking at are people who are forced to flee their homes primarily because of environmental push factors. Now, this could be anything ranging from desertification, deforestation, extreme weather events, floods and droughts. Natural events relating to the Earth’s hydrological cycle. And with even the most modest scenarios for global warming showing significant rises and increases in the intensity and probably frequency of extreme weather events, certain parts of the world which are highly populated – along coasts, along rivers – are going to become much harder places to live. Some areas where people are dependent upon rain-fed agriculture farming, especially in some parts of sub-Saharan Africa, are going to find life difficult, if not impossible. So every projection points to the fact that the number of environmental refugees is going to grow and grow significantly.

CURWOOD: Everywhere from Louisiana to the Bay of Bengal, Bangladesh, huh?

SIMMS: Well, I think that’s right. And in some places, in some of the more exposed places like small island states in the South Pacific, it becomes a matter of life and death. So people who are living in highly vulnerable and highly exposed areas. There are places in the world, such as Tuvalu, where they have already negotiated internationally with New Zealand a program for planned long-term relocation of population. So it’s a reality, it’s not just a theory being bandied about between environmentalists.

CURWOOD: Now, let me talk to you about this term “environmental refugee.” Up till now people have tended to use the word “refugee” to refer to people who are fleeing wars and persecution. You write that we are now living in an age of environmental persecution, and that’s why we should call these folks refugees. What do you mean by environmental persecution?

SIMMS: In the way that persecution is termed in international law regarding refugees, if a particular group of people are effectively persecuted as a consequence of known policies pursued elsewhere then they can claim refugee status. Now, we’ve known about, at least, the chemistry of global warming for well over a hundred years. We’ve known now for a matter of decades the direct consequence of the profligate use of fossil fuels in such a way that there’s a strong human fingerprint in climate change, which is driving these extreme weather events, which are going to lead to people needing to cross borders.

Once you’ve got known cause and effect, and known consequence, I think it’s fair to say that people living in areas that are vulnerable specifically to climate-related environmental change deserve the protection of the international community. Now, the only way that’s going to happen, the only way that the countries overwhelmingly responsible, the high energy using countries, are going to be forced to pick up the tab is if they have a legal obligation.

It’s important also to point out that it’s already the case in the world that the vast majority of refugees, the economic burden of dealing with refugees, falls upon poor countries. Now, in an age of ever-growing numbers of environmental refugees, that will also be the case. So the people who are least responsible for producing the problem, specifically in the case of climate change, will bear the largest burden of having to pick up the tab.

CURWOOD: Who are the environmental persecutors, in your mind?

SIMMS: Well, I think, not a case of in my mind, it’s pretty much down in the record books, if we were to look through the per capita emissions figures you’ve got the advanced industrialized nations at the top. Countries like the UK, countries like the United States, most of the other European countries. The huge inequities in terms of fossil fuel use are there as a matter of record, a matter of fact.

CURWOOD: You’ve talked a lot about climate change as being a push factor for environmental refugees. What are some of the things that make people into environmental refugees besides global warming?

SIMMS: Well, you’re looking at the things that make life extremely difficult. It could be deforestation, it could be because a particular natural resource has been overexploited, it could be through the industrial exploitation of a particular type of new approach to farming. There might be areas along the coast of Bangladesh where the introduction of intensive shrimp farming may so contaminate the indigenous resources that they’re driven on. There’s countless reasons but, overwhelmingly, the largest one is that driven by the Earth’s hydrological cycle, which is intimately linked to the fate of global warming. So global warming is the big one.

CURWOOD: Now, do you think this effort, that is, to officially recognize environmental refugees, will actually gain traction? I mean, if it’s adopted in some sort of formal way international organizations and governments will have to take responsibility for these folks. Perhaps take more responsibility for the underlying problems, as well. It’s something which I would think that many of them may not be that eager to do.

SIMMS: Well, I think you can look at it in one of two ways. You can either kind of wait for the problem to happen, with all the international and security implications and the upheaval that that will represent in terms of the unprotected and unmanaged flow of people across borders. Or you can choose to do something about it, which you can deal with the problem in a planned and orderly fashion. The latter would seem to be sort of hugely preferable to the former. But however we decide to approach it in a legalistic manner, the most important thing to keep focused on is that it’s a problem that exists and it’s a problem that’s going to get worse, and unless we manage it it’s probably going to manage us.

CURWOOD: Andrew Simms is author of the book entitled “Environmental Refugees: The Case for Recognition.” Mr. Simms, thanks for joining us.

SIMMS: Thank you.



“Environmental Refugees: The Case for Recognition”

United Nations Press Release on Environmental Refugees


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