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Climate Refugees: An Introduction to Environmentally-Displaced Communities

Photo courtesy of Unsplash

In 2020, approximately 30.7 million refugees fled their countries; ninety-eight percent of whom were escaping natural disasters such as wildfires, floods, and droughts, all of which were caused by climate change. As more greenhouse gasses are emitted into the atmosphere, ocean temperatures increase and, due to the process of thermal expansion as well as the melting of major glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica, sea levels rise. Many coastal regions, especially on island nations, have become uninhabitable as sea levels have risen to a point where complete inundation of communities is in effect.

While more people are becoming climate refugees, they have found little solace in international courts. Due to the displacement effects of both WWI and WWII, a diplomatic convention was held in Geneva in 1951 to discuss the legal rights and protection directed toward refugees which then spurred the creation of additional protocols around the world. The definition of a refugee from the perspective of the 1951 Refugee Convention and subsequent 1967 Protocol states that a refugee is someone “who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion”. Unfortunately, this gives no legal standing to those fleeing the devastations of their homes due to anthropogenic and natural climate disasters. As stated in the most recent IPCC report, 3.3-3.6 billion people inhabit areas that are “highly vulnerable to climate change” and many have been forced to abandon their homes due to rising sea levels, flooding, storms, droughts, and wildfires.

Within the United Nations’ Operational Strategy for Climate Resilience and Environmental Sustainability goals for 2022-2025, The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has promised to introduce two financial plans that will increase sustainability within refugee camps: Project Flow and the Refugee Environmental Protection Fund. The UNHCR has acknowledged that seeking refugee status due to environmental degradation can be a cyclical process. Many refugee camps require an influx of resources that are not always readily available and are obtained through unsustainable processes. To efficiently provide the number of affected individuals and volunteers with housing, food, transportation, medical facilities and other services there is a large reliance on fossil fuels and deforestation. The exacerbation of anthropogenic factors to climate change furthers the lack of climate mitigation strategies within these populations who are most at risk. Project Flow requires the addition of solar energy capture for refugee structures, with the savings being invested in other renewable energies for housing, educational facilities, and health clinics. The Refugee Environmental Protection Fund addresses refugee facilities’ contributions to deforestation, which generally occurs to obtain the amount of cooking fuel required for subsistence. The fund offsets this tradeoff by vowing to replant a substantial number of trees and record the estimated carbon credits of this natural carbon sequestration technique. Not only does this create green jobs for refugees who are in charge of reforestation and clean cooking programs as well as reduce the negative externalities on host communities, but these carbon credits can be sold to increase financial income to sustain the fund. When laws are set in place to cap emissions (a cap and trade system), carbon credits can be bought by corporations to offset their pollution and act as a permit that allows the company to raise their pollution limit.

To be clear, most individuals who are displaced due to a lack of climate mitigation become internally-displaced people seeking refuge in other areas of their home country rather than leaving their nation entirely. However, accessibility to asylum in nations least affected by climate change is rather uncommon, despite most of these nations being significant contributors to climate change. Consequently, these nations have an important and necessary duty to provide resources for mitigation and adaptation methods in areas prone to climate disasters. Global warming occurs through the accumulation of CO2 and other greenhouse gasses over time. Since our oceans and atmosphere are the world’s greatest carbon reservoirs and carbon dioxide has an incredibly long lifespan in each of these reservoirs, it is necessary to take into account historical emissions of CO2 when analyzing which nations are most responsible for anthropogenic climate change. Since the industrial revolution, the U.S. has been the greatest contributor to CO2 emissions with 20% of the global total as of 2019 followed by China, Russia, Brazil, Germany, and the UK. Yet these are not the nations most affected by the negative impacts of climate change, and hence it is necessary to hold them responsible for their actions.

The most recent bills proposed within the U.S. Congress to address the nation’s responsibility in the fight for climate refugees were S. 2565, “A bill to establish a Global Climate Change Resilience Strategy, to authorize the admission of climate-displaced persons, and for other purposes” sponsored by Massachusetts Democrat Edward Markey and H.R. 2826, “To establish a Global Climate Change Resilience Strategy, to authorize the admission of climate-displaced persons, and for other purposes” proposed by New York Democrat Nydia Velasquez. These bills, introduced in 2019 and 2021 respectively, have not seen the pressure necessary to pass through Congress. It is our responsibility to reach out to our legislators and demand support for these propositions.

As more of the world begins to feel the impacts of climate change, empathy toward and awareness of internally displaced people has augmented. There are multiple non-profit organizations whose missions support these individuals, families, and communities including Climate Refugees: a non-profit founded in 2015 that uses research and experience to advocate for the rights of climate refugees-a term not yet accepted in international law. Consider donating to their cause and staying up to date on the highlighted voices of refugees provided on their webpage.



Evans, S. (2022, May 12). Analysis: Which countries are historically responsible for climate change? Carbon Brief.

Greenfield, N. (2022, May 9). Climate migration and equity. Be a Force for the Future.

How cap and trade works. Environmental Defense Fund. (n.d.).

Library of Congress. (n.d.). H.R.2826 - 117th Congress (2021-2022).

Library of Congress. (n.d.). S.2565 - 116th Congress (2019-2020).

Thompson, L., & Miranda, L. (2021, October 30). What are carbon credits? how fighting climate change became a billion-dollar industry.

Tollefson, J. (2022, February 28). Climate change is hitting the planet faster than scientists originally thought. Nature News.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. (n.d.). Operational strategy for climate resilience and environmental sustainability 2022-2025. UNHCR.

Weisbrod, K. (2021, November 1). By 2050, 200 million climate refugees may have fled their homes. but international laws offer them little protection. Inside Climate News.


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