A recent article in the Irish Times described comments by a leading Australian urban geographer, Prof. Brendan Gleeson of NUI Maynooth, that Ireland will become a ‘climate change lifeboat’. The idea is that as climate change causes rising sea levels, displacing vast overpopulated regions of the world, Ireland will be less physically affected leading to our ‘lifeboat’ status for large numbers of people who are effectively ‘climate refugees’. The BBC also reported the story, adding that if global temperatures rise by three or four degrees, as Prof. Gleeson predicts they will, the southern megacities in Africa, the sub-continental states and Asia will be the first to go under, taking with them a substantial proportion of our species. This will generate “enormous migratory shifts, as displaced and stressed populations flee the sea level rise and wildly destructive weather.” Ireland could become one of only a few habitable ‘lifeboat’ regions in the cooler extremes of the earth.
The concept of climate change refugees is a growing area of interest. For example a recent Oscar-nominated documentary film, Sun Come Up, tells the story of the Cateret Islanders of Papua New Guinea, considered the first climate change refugees as their island is predicted to sink. Another documentary, Climate Refugees, portrays “a new phenomenon in the global arena called ‘Climate Refugees’”, according to its blurb.
This interest is replicated in the sphere of international law. I have blogged previously on this in the context of the Pakistan floods, but it is a topic that consistently returns. This is because of the predicted catastrophe along the lines that Prof. Gleeson is proposing, with the idea from the legal community that we need international regulation to cope with this new problem. It has been accepted that climate change refugees are not a legal category, as understood in the definition of a refugee in the 1951 Refugee Convention. Therefore persons displaced by rising seas, seeking asylum in Ireland for example, could not claim refugee status as environmental damage is not a recognised ground under the Geneva Convention. In other words, climate refugees don’t exist, at least in a legal sense. As a result, commentators are calling for a new convention on climate change refugees. The momentum behind this proposal is strong, fuelled by predictions like this one.
In a research paper on Bangladesh by Jane McAdam and Ben Saul, the need for a new convention is questioned. As a low-lying, densely populated delta country, with the majority of its population in flood-prone areas, Bangladesh is usually first on the list when raising the question of future climate change refugees. The paper acknowledges the consensus that climate change is aggravating existing ‘natural’ environmental hazards in Bangladesh, such as flooding, erosion and land loss. Indeed 30 percent of Bangladesh’s coastal areas could be subsumed by 2080. However the authors caution that “it is inherently fraught to speak of climate change as the cause of human movement”.
As McAdam and Saul emphasise, there is little evidence that climate change will cause mass outflows of climate refugees, threatening international or regional security. Seasonal flooding displaces from 500,000 to 1 million people per year in Bangladesh, and river bank erosion of land affects similarly large numbers of people; it is difficult to disentangle these ‘natural’ from climate change processes. Indeed decisions to migrate in Bangladesh are motivated by a range of factors, such as poverty or socio-political reasons, as well as environmental degradation. In general the vast majority of migration is internal, not external, in that borders are usually not crossed, rendering an international convention obsolete in the majority of predicted situations.
And the predictions are abundant; a figure often cited is that this century, from 100-200 million people could be forced to migrate because of climate change. Yet the evidence from Bangladesh, at the vanguard of these predictions, is that “the causes of displacement are multi-dimensional and difficult to disaggregate.” In other words, it is difficult to isolate climate change as a sole cause of migration. In a country heavily affected by frequent ‘natural’ disasters, it is problematic to disentangle climate change-related events from ordinary environmental processes.
Similarly, the ‘disappearing islands’ thesis is open to question. For example, even the Wikipedia site for the Cateret Islands posits three or four other potential causes of rising seas, such as damage inflicted over decades by the indigenous fishing industry, or high tectonic activity in the area causing subsidence. Other populated islands, including Tuanaki in the Cook Islands, are known to have sunk entirely for causes unrelated to rising sea levels; it was last seen in 1842!
There is no evidence that climate change will be a sole factor in causing vast movements of people across international borders to states such as Ireland. As McAdam and Saul note, “common assumptions that displacement will involve large scale cross-border movements to countries such as India, or further afield to South-East Asia or even Europe, do not accord with existing patterns of movement from natural disasters in Bangladesh, which provide the best indicators of future movement.”
I am no climate change sceptic; but I am a climate change refugee sceptic.