Climate refugees are people who have been displaced by climactic conditions such as desertification, droughts, sea level rise and rapid ecological change. Those who must evacuate their homes and regions due to extreme weather events like typhoons, tornados, hurricanes, flooding and bush or forest fires can also be considered as climate refugees.

Prior to the typhoon in the Philippines, most of the talk concerning climate refugees focussed on “disappearing”, “sinking” or otherwise climate-ravaged small Pacific islands rather than heavily populated places like Bangladesh or parts of Southeast Asia. These islands include the nations of Kiribati, the Marshall Islands and Tuvalu. Similarly, the entire once-rich rainforest ecology the Micronesian island state of Nauru was sold out to the phosphate industry and turned into wasteland years ago.

From China Dialogue:

In May, drought hit the Marshall Islands’ northern atolls for the first time in recent memory, leaving many residents without enough food and water. Then, in July, storm surges breached the sea wall that protects Majuro and flooded the capital.

Two of Kiribati’s islands are already submerged. In early 2005, other islands were flooded by a high spring tide that washed away farmland, swept salt water into wells and inundated homes and a hospital.

Flood refugees in Bihar, India, 2008. Pic: Balazs Gardi

US officials were wary that in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda) compensation to poor countries damaged by extreme weather events would dominate the UN climate change talks in Warsaw. However, so far the biggest news out of the talks is a fund to prevent deforestation.  Of course it’s all interlinked. Deforestation diminishes important carbon sinks and fuels climate change. The difference here is between preventative “medicine” and treating the symptoms of trauma. In this case, hurricane damage and climate refugees are the direct results of trauma, whether they are directly linked to manmade climate change or not. Often the biggest immediate problems are not necessarily deforestation (though it is no doubt also a serious crisis), but rather an unfair economic and political system that keeps people in dangerous poverty. As I posted earlier this week, it is simple poverty that often causes people to lose their homes or be killed in extreme weather events.

Nonetheless, the poor, small and politically weak Pacific island nations – with the backing of Australia and New Zealand –have asked the world to reduce its climate emissions. Representatives of 13 Pacific island countries met at the Pacific Islands Forum, held in Majuro, the capital city of Micronesia to call on China, the European Union, India, Japan and the U.S. to fast track measures to curb climate change.

Waiting for a new global agreement in 2015 will not be enough. Accelerating climate action now, and well before 2020, is critical.

–Marshall Islands President and Forum chairman Christopher Loeak (via Sci Dev Net)

Sinking Kiribati, 2009. Pic: Jodie Gatfield, AusAID

That was back in early September, before Typhoon Haiyan devastated parts of the Philippines, leaving an estimated two million people homeless. According to a paper by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) worldwide climate refugee numbers could reach 200 million by 2050.

Shouldn’t there be an alternative to this system that creates climate refugees by both changing the climate and denying them a living wage and a decent standard of living?