A Global Challenge: 'Climate Refugees'

Students learn about people around the globe who are being forced from their homes because of climate change, and think about how we as a society should respond.  This companion lesson encourages empathy for climate refugees.  


Ask students:

  • What do you think it means to be a refugee? 
  • What kinds of events cause people to search for safety far from home?
  • Can you think of any examples? 



Reading 1: 
Refugees from a changing climate

Refugee. The word conjures images of people running from persecution and war, clinging to rafts, sleeping in tents. Under international law, refugees are people fleeing conflict or persecution. There are 20 million people classified as refugees in the world today, according to the UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency. They include Syrians running from their country’s devastating conflict, members of Myanmar’s Rohingya ethnic minority escaping persecution, and South Sudanese fleeing civil war. All told, there are more refugees in the world today than at any time since the end of World War II.
To organizations that help refugees, such as the UNHCR, the world is already suffering from a catastrophic refugee crisis. But today’s refugee population may be just a fraction of what the world could see in coming decades. As the planet warms and polar ice melts, changing weather patterns and rising seas will force millions of people to leave their homes. 
By 2060, there could be about 1.4 billion climate refugees, estimates Charles Geisler, professor emeritus of development sociology at Cornell University. By 2100, the number might be as high as 2 billion — about one–fifth of the world’s anticipated population. Geisler cites a variety of factors contributing to the expected tsunami of refugees, including "war, exhausted natural resources, declining productivity desertification, urban sprawl, ‘paving the planet’ with roads." 
A refuge is a safe shelter. Where can people find refuge when the climate in their home countries can no longer support farming, fishing, hunting, and other activities that have sustained human life for centuries, if not millennia? 
People who fit the legal definition of "refugee" are entitled to certain types of protection under international law. But people fleeing climate chaos do not meet the current legal definition of "refugees," even when government policy is responsible for uninhabitable conditions. The current migration system "makes climate refugees particularly disposable," says Zygmunt Bauman, a professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Leeds, leading to "a lack of protection for these people."
"Ironically," writes reporter Bruna Kadletz, climate refugees  "often come from countries with low carbon dioxide emissions and few resources to respond to climate change." Kadletz describes the precarious life of 11–year–old Melina, who left her home in southern Malawi when she was three to move with her parents to South Africa. Since the late 1990s, Malawi has cycled between extreme flood and drought conditions. This severe weather made it impossible to grow the staple crop, maize, that had sustained Melina’s family for generations. In South Africa, the family is living in limbo, without the legal status that would allow Melina to go to school and the family to have access to health care.
Climate change doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Typically, a combination of factors forces people to leave their homes. Excessive drought, heat, or flooding intertwine with famine, unemployment, inequality, and conflict. Climate change acts as a "threat multiplier" — a factor that can push simmering social, political, and economic problems into full–blown crisis.
Syria is a clear example of a climate disaster that that catapulted a political crisis into catastrophe. A three–year drought, the worst in the region’s recorded history, led to crop failures and livestock deaths. Scientists say the drought’s length and intensity could only be explained as a result of a changing climate. More than a million people, mostly farmers who could no longer live on the land, sought work in overcrowded cities where food prices soared, fueling existing dissatisfaction with the authoritarian Assad regime. By March 2017, more than 5 million people had left the country and 6.3 million were displaced within the country.
On the other hand, there are places where climate change is the clear single cause of displacement. A report by the Lancet, a British medical journal, found that at least 4,400 people have been forced to leave their homes in Alaska, Papua New Guinea, and Louisiana because of rising seas, coastal erosion, and disintegrating coastlines. 
Kiribati is another example of a country that expects climate change to drive migration. The Pacific island nation, located midway between Australia and Hawaii, may be entirely underwater in 30 to 50 years. So it is planning for "Migration with Dignity" by training its citizens in high–tech skills that, the government hopes, will win them a welcome in other countries. New Zealand, for its part, is discussing whether to offer asylum to people fleeing climate change, which could open the door for Kiribati’s climate refugees.
But it seems unlikely that Kiribati’s strategy could provide a solution for the millions if not billions of people who eventually may be displaced. "Humanity is in crisis," warns sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, "and there is no exit from that crisis other than the solidarity of humans."


For discussion

  1. How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
  2. How does climate change force people to leave their homes?  
  3. Should governments recognize people displaced by climate change as refugees? How might this help the people who are displaced?
  4. Should countries that are not suffering from climate displacement help people fleeing from other countries because of changes in climate? How can they help?
  5. What does Zygmunt Bauman mean when he says that "there is no exit" from a humanitarian crisis "other than the solidarity of other humans?" Do you agree? Why or why not?  


Reading 2:
Louisiana’s climate refugees

People who study climate change expect many future climate refugees to come from Africa and Asia. But some climate refugees will be leaving homes in the United States.
In September 2017, an enormous hurricane, Maria, struck the island of Puerto Rico, a territory of the United States whose residents are American citizens. The hurricane caused massive destruction across the island and created a crisis for millions of people. Tens of thousands of storm victims have fled the island to rebuild their lives on the mainland. (See this companion TeachableMoment lesson on Puerto Rican families forced from their homes after Hurricane Maria.)
Other Americans are being turned into refugees because of ongoing climate changes. The Native American people of Isle de Jean Charles, 80 miles from New Orleans are be among them.
Over the past 60 years, Isle de Jean Charles has lost 98% of its land mass in a perfect storm of rising sea levels, damaging hurricanes, and oil and gas canals that slice through the island. Only half a square mile of land remains above the water level, and that too will disappear by 2100 if sea levels keep rising as predicted. 
Many of the island’s people have already moved on. Where there were about 80 families in the 1950s, only 30 still remain. It’s not clear how much longer they can stay. To help them build new lives away from the island, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced in 2016 that it would spend $48 million to move the entire Isle de Jean Charles community to higher ground.
New York Times reporters Coral Davenport and Campbell Robertson describe the challenges of resettling this community in their article "Resettling the First American ‘Climate Refugees’" (May 3, 2016). They quote Walter Kaelin, the head of the Nansen Initiative, a research organization working with the United Nations to address extreme–weather displacement: "You don’t want to wait until people have lost their homes, until they flee and become refugees," he said. "The idea is to plan ahead and provide people with some measure of choice."
Under a federal grant, the island’s approximately 60 residents will be resettled to drier land, to a community that does not yet exist.  According to the Times, the Isle de Jean Charles resettlement plan is one of the first programs of its kind in the world –  and a test of how to respond to climate change without tearing communities apart.

For over a century, the American Indians on the island fished, hunted, trapped and farmed among the lush banana and pecan trees that once spread out for acres. But since 1955, more than 90 percent of the island’s original land mass has washed away. Channels cut by loggers and oil companies eroded much of the island, and decades of flood control efforts have kept once free–flowing rivers from replenishing the wetlands’ sediments. Some of the island was swept away by hurricanes.
What little remains will eventually be inundated as burning fossil fuels melt polar ice sheets and drive up sea levels, projected the National Climate Assessment, a report of 13 federal agencies that highlighted the Isle de Jean Charles and its tribal residents as among the nation’s most vulnerable.
Already, the homes and trailers bear the mildewed, rusting scars of increasing floods. The fruit trees are mostly gone or dying thanks to saltwater in the soil. Few animals are left to hunt or trap.
Violet Handon Parfait sees nothing but a bleak future in the rising waters. She lives with her husband and two children in a small trailer behind the wreckage of their house, which Hurricane Gustav destroyed in 2008.
The floods ruined the trailer’s oven, so the family cooks on a hot plate. Water destroyed the family computer, too. Ms. Parfait, who has lupus, is afraid of what will happen if she is sick and cannot reach a doctor over the flooded bridge.
Ms. Parfait, who dropped out of high school, hopes for a brighter future, including college, for her children, Heather, 15, and Reggie, 13. But the children often miss school when flooding blocks their school bus. "I just want to get out of here," she said.
Still, many residents of Isle de Jean Charles do not want to leave. Attachment to the island runs deep. Parents and grandparents lived here; there is a cemetery on the island that no one wants to abandon. Old and well–earned distrust of the government hangs over all efforts, and a bitter dispute between the two Indian tribes with members on the island has thwarted efforts to unite behind a plan.
"Ain’t nobody I talk to that wants to move," said Edison Dardar, 66, a lifelong resident who has erected handwritten signs at the entrance to the island declaring his refusal to leave. "I don’t know who’s in charge of all this."
Whether to leave is only the first of the hard questions: Where does everyone go? What claim do they have to what is left behind? Will they be welcomed by their new neighbors? Will there be work nearby? Who will be allowed to join them?

Mark Davis, the director of the Tulane Institute on Water Resources Law and Policy, told the Times reporters: "This is not just a simple matter of writing a check and moving happily to a place where they are embraced by their new neighbors. If you have a hard time moving dozens of people, it becomes impossible in any kind of organized or fair way to move thousands, or hundreds of thousands, or, if you look at the forecast for South Florida, maybe even millions." 

For discussion:  

  1. How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
  2. Why do you think it’s so difficult to resettle climate refugees?
  3. Do you think the federal government should be involved in resettling people from areas affected by climate change?
  4. Should state and local governments begin preparing now for evacuation of areas that are predicted to be underwater in the coming decades? How can people prepare as climate change advances?
  5. What can we do to ensure that those who are displaced by climate change find safe and welcoming homes elsewhere?   



Extension Activity

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change calls on nations participating in the Paris climate accords to find ways to protect and support people displaced by climate change. The UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency, asks all nations to commit resources to helping those already displaced, find ways to prevent and reduce the risk of displacement, and support areas at risk with technical advice for relocating people in harm’s way.
How can governments and non–governmental aid groups provide the support that climate refugees need?
Ask students to read this New York Times article and choose a specific area of the world where climate is displacing people or is expected to displace people.
Ask students, in small groups or individually, to research the area they have chosen, and to be prepared to share what they’ve learned with classmates. Ask them to find out:

  1. How climate threatens people’s lives and may force them to leave
  2. How climate change may be causing or aggravating other problems in the area, such as war, crime, and human rights abuses.
  3. Whether international and national organizations are acting to help people displaced by climate change and related problems and how these groups are trying to help.

In the next class, ask students to share what they've learned. Talk with students about what we, as individuals, or as a school or community, might do to help people who are displaced by climate change.