One of the most pressing issues of the next 50 years is already beginning to surface. Sea levels are rising, as are incidences of harsh weather conditions and natural disasters. These climate conditions could eventually make cities or even entire nations uninhabitable. Nations such as Bangladesh and the Maldives, which have populated areas that barely rise above sea level, are threatened by partial disappearance underwater. Other nations are experiencing food insecurity or lack of drinking water in some regions.
Sometimes, climate change also triggers human conflict. While it would be easy to blame the Syrian civil war and refugee crisis on simple politics, this is not the case. According to a paper published in March 2015 by the National Academy of Sciences, one primary catalyst of the conflict was a severe drought lasting from 2006 to 2010. This drought made it impossible to farm in rural Syria, driving farmers into the cities in large numbers and fomenting urban unrest. There is also evidence that environmental issues also played a role in the humanitarian crisis and genocide in Darfur.
Many experts predict that the trend towards global instability and waves of mass migration will continue, often affecting some of the worlds’ least affluent and (ironically) least responsible for climate change. As Friends of the Earth CEO Craig Bennett recently noted in an opinion piece for the Guardian, “[...] it would be naïve in the extreme to assume millions of people suffering the worst effects of climate change aren’t going to want to move, and morally bankrupt to deny them this possibility if they’ve contributed next to nothing to the causes. Throw armed conflict back into the mix, and the problems currently being experienced in Budapest or Calais are far from the full extent of the problem.” However, there is no international mechanism to deal with the millions of potential refugees that “the full extent of the problem” will entail.
The United States Must Develop a Response to International Climate Migration
American and global lawmakers have not yet adequately thought through climate migration issues. As discussed in a recent article on Syria, refugee status currently requires past persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution. This persecution can be based on race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. Importantly, the persecution must be perpetrated by either the government or a group that the government cannot control (such as ISIL in Syria). All refugee status is based on human-versus-human problems; there is nothing that can be done under international law when the earth itself turns against the people who inhabit it.
This world dilemma is coupled with a rising tide of anti-immigration sentiment among some US politicians and groups. It seems increasingly unlikely that a scheme to help relocate millions of climate change victims would gain ground in the United States. Currently, the Obama administration is facing backlash for trying to relocate a mere 10,000 political refugees from the Syrian conflict. Yet, nations with strong infrastructures may be the only hope in a future humanitarian crisis of this scale.
As an article published for the International Bar Association noted, the UN has taken baby steps to create an international legal framework that would address the relationship between migration and climate change. More recently, the Nansen Initiative offered an agenda to help protect climate change victims. However, the United States itself will also have to prepare a response that will adequately address our nation’s role in the event of mass global population displacement. Our national immigration infrastructure should prepare well ahead to tackle this problem.
Our Government Must Also Address Domestic Migration
Internal displacement is yet another policy issue that our nation must address. The United States faced Hurricane Katrina, which caused a temporary migration of over a million people and permanently displaced tens of thousands of Gulf Coast residents whose homes were lost. Many experts agree that this disaster was mishandled, causing additional loss and suffering to those involved. Particularly, the government did not protect the environmental and property rights of vulnerable groups or provide adequate assistance to victims.
As mentioned in a special report by the Institute for Southern Studies, the United Nations had already developed guidelines for governments coping with disasters like Katrina --- the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. The guidelines state that governments should practice disaster prevention, provide humanitarian assistance, and assist with housing and other infrastructure that would allow people to resettle. With inhabited islands off the coast of Virginia beginning to experience tidal incursions, and many other natural disasters predicted, our domestic policies need to come up to the international standard.
Authored by Alexis Watts, LegalMatch Legal Writer