While the Tampa was seen as a defining moment in Australian border protection, another, potentially much larger, crisis is looming: a new wave of refugees fleeing human-induced climate change.
As Bill Clinton, an unlikely champion of climate refugees, once said: “If you’re worried about 400 people, you just let the world keep warming up like this for the next fifty years and your grandchildren will be worried about 400 000 people.”
The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts a rise in the global average surface temperature by between 1.4 and 5.8 degrees Celsius by 2100. This will result in a global mean sea level rise of an average of 5 millimetres per year over the next 100 years.
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Rising sea levels, as well as other impacts of climate change such as storm surges and more frequent floods, threaten the habitability of a number of islands and nations, many of which are in our region of the world.
The Pacific is home to twenty two island states, with a combined population of approximately seven million people. Pacific Islanders contribute the least to global greenhouse gas emissions, emitting an estimated 0.06 per cent of the world’s emissions, yet the IPCC has declared them as three times more at risk from the effects of climate change than countries of the global north.
These effects are already being felt. High tides are increasingly washing through crop gardens in several of the smaller atolls in both Melanesia and Polynesia, and the increased incidence of coral bleaching from rising ocean temperatures is depleting fish stock. Coral reefs provide the environment for subsistence fishing across the Pacific, and are therefore critical to the survival of small island states.
Located in the Pacific Ocean 3400 kilometres north-east of Australia, the nation of Tuvalu is made up of eight tiny coral atolls with a total area of 26 square kilometres. It is one of the world’s lowest-lying countries, with its highest point standing a mere four and a half metres above sea level. With a population of 11 636 people, approximately half of all Tuvaluans live just three metres above sea level, making them extremely vulnerable to rising sea levels. It has been predicted that the country will be totally submerged within around fifty years.
Tuvalu has signed an agreement with New Zealand to relocate many of its citizens over the coming decades. When the Tuvaluan Government approached Australia to undertake a similar commitment, the response demonstrated a complete lack of awareness of climate change science and impacts. Unbeknown to the majority of Australians, our government refused to consider accepting Tuvaluans migrating to Australia because climate change was ‘unproven’, and therefore an insufficient basis to change immigration policy.
While the concept of environmental refugees is not new, and there is increasing interest in climate refugees, there is no legal recognition of either, providing no assurances for peoples displaced by climate change. The International Red Cross, in its World Disasters Report 2001 suggested that twenty-five million people (up to fifty eight per cent of all current refugees) may already be environmental refugees. These people are fleeing a multitude of disruptions, and, it appears, global warming is one of them.
What is daunting is the extremely high number of climate refugees predicted for the coming decade. One of the major sources on the topic, Norman Myers of Oxford University, says there could be 150 million climate refugees on the move within fifty years, including at least seventy five million in the Asia Pacific region.
Of those who are displaced by global warming, where will they go? Do we believe they will stay where they are and quietly starve? No, they will do what any of us would: move and seek refuge elsewhere. Do we, as the highest per capita greenhouse polluters in the industrialised world, have a responsibility to respond to them? Absolutely.
Countries such as Australia bear a significant responsibility for the displacement of climate refugees. In recognition of this fact, we must make room for environmental refugees, as well as changing policies that contribute to the creation of more ecologically displaced people.
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