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Will climate change create refugees?

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Posted: Wednesday, November 13, 2013 8:56 am

We commonly think of refugees as families or individuals fleeing from war-stricken countries. The loss of homes, or potential loss of homes, sends people traveling to another country asking for refugee status so that they may be safe from some sort of persecution. In the 21st century, we may start to see a new type of refugee — a climate change refugee. 

One man, Ioane Teitiota, from the Pacific Island nation of Kiribati is pleading such a case to the country of New Zealand. If ocean levels rise, as they are predicted to by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), then many of the small Pacific Island nations are in danger of becoming uninhabitable The president of Kiribati said, “For our people to survive, then they will have to migrate. Either we can wait for the time when we have to move people en masse or we can prepare them —beginning from now ...”

But it’s not just rising sea levels that the global community should be worried about. There have been a number of severe and intense hurricanes and tropical storms that have affected millions of people. Heavy rains and flooding have been increasing with storms over the past few years. 

Hurricane Sandy resulted in massive flooding and storm surges both in the Caribbean Islands and major cities in New York and New Jersey. Over the weekend, Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda) rampaged through the Philippines with some winds sustaining more than 200 miles per hour. There are an estimated 10,000 people dead and millions more affected. It is considered the largest typhoon since 1979’s Super Typhoon Tip. It will likely take years to restore normalcy to the region. 

At the start of this week the annual United Nations Climate Change Conference began. If ever there was a sign for change, Typhoon Haiyan certainly delivered it. The two-week conference is expected to address the issue of financing climate change mitigation efforts. Even though the largest carbon emitting countries recognize the problem they seem unwilling to start funding for such changes. 

At the end of the day, it is not just politicians who need to start changing their mindsets and habits — it’s everyone. Global relief efforts for victims of Typhoon Haiyan may feed and shelter people today, but what about next year? Or the year after that? With every year we are seeing worse storms occur. 

Our climate is changing at a faster rate. If we don’t make a dramatic change today we may pass the threshold of no return. As more people are affected by such disasters there will be larger migrations. The Pacific countries such as Australia, New Zealand and China may find more people petitioning for climate change refugee status. It is a growing issue that needs to be addressed. But in the case of Teitiota, the Pacific Islander whose home may flood in the coming years, it is unlikely that he will be granted refugee status in New Zealand.


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