Rohingya refugees jostle as they line up for a blanket distribution under heavy rainfall at the Balukhali camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, 11 December 2017. Photo: Reuters

By Justine Calma
5 February 2018

(Grist) – The unprecedented brutality of the 2017 hurricane season showed the potential that natural disasters have to destroy livelihoods, displace families, and uproot entire communities. The most recent example, of course, is the situation in Puerto Rico post-Maria. Experts estimate the U.S. territory will lose close to 500,000 residents in the next two years.

According to a report by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, 26 million people each year have been displaced by natural disasters worldwide. And as climate change likely increases the frequency and intensity of these events, larger numbers of environmental migrants will be forced to leave their homes behind in search of safety and opportunity.

Meanwhile, experts warn that countries like the United States are currently adopting policies that indicate climate migrants will be met with closed doors as opposed to open arms. Among those are the recent moves to suspend temporary protected status for people from certain countries, like Haiti in the wake of the devastating 2010 earthquake. And just last week, President Trump nominated Ken Isaacs — who has made public remarks denying climate change — to lead the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration, which has been at the forefront of addressing climate-induced displacement and migration.

As environmental factors compel more and more people to move, it seems apparent that the political winds are forming a perfect storm that will lead to humanitarian crises.

“The conversion of these two factors most often leads to tragedy,” says Mariam Traore Chazalnoel, a climate-migration specialist at the agency Isaacs was just tapped to lead (pending a vote from the organization’s membership).

In addition to boosting natural disasters, climate change is imperiling island and coastal communities by pushing up sea levels. Kiribati has already purchased land on nearby Fiji in anticipation of having to evacuate its citizens. A warming planet is also exacerbating poverty and conflict around the globe. And experts say environmental pressures affecting agriculture, fishing, or other means of livelihood can often be at the root of economic and political destabilization that forces people to leave home.

A recent study published in the journal Science found that if the planet continues to warm at its current rate, the number of migrants who apply for asylum in the European Union is likely to triple by 2100. Even in the case of the more than 5 million refugees fleeing Syria, scientists have pointed to the role warming played in spurring a drought that stoked civil unrest.

“Climate change was just one additional stressor, an exacerbating factor, that when piled in on top of everything else caused this [conflict] to happen,” says Colin Kelley, a senior research fellow at the Center for Climate and Security.

Kelley is the lead author of a groundbreaking 2015 study that detailed how drought, crop failure, and the resulting migration from rural areas to urban centers contributed to the onset of the Syrian civil war. […]

“There are areas of the world that are getting degraded, and if we do nothing they will become uninhabitable,” Chazalnoel says. “But there is still some time — not a lot — but some time to reverse. [more]

Closed-door policies imperil climate migrants

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