The Human Toll of Climate Change

By Elizabeth Hopkinson


[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hile the United States debates the legitimacy of climate change, the Marshall Islands are already preparing for its devastating effects. The Marshall Islands, one of many low-lying coastal areas, face an uncertain future due to warming ocean temperatures and the resulting increases in sea levels. According to a recent study by the US Geological Survey, rising sea levels could render the small Pacific nation uninhabitable within a few decades. If the sea creeps just 16 inches up the shore, the freshwater infrastructure on the Marshall Islands will be destroyed, forcing their  some 70,000 residents to evacuate.

The existential threat faced by the Marshall Islands and other coastal areas reflects climate change’s evolving presence as both an environmental and humanitarian crisis. The citizens of the Marshall Islands could become part of an emerging new classification of displaced persons: climate refugees. Though this category lacks a formal or legal definition on the international stage, the term “climate refugees” is generally considered to encompass all people who are forced to migrate due to rising sea levels, desertification, drought, floods, or severe weather events like hurricanes that are predicted to become more frequent and more intense as Earth’s temperatures increase. Though these problems affect nearly every region of the world, developing nations in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America are predicted to bear the brunt of climate change’s impact; these regions’ geographic locations will make them more prone to increasing severe weather events, and their less developed infrastructure will not be able to  to withstand the effects of climate change. If there is no concrete international progress to combat the progression of climate change, a World Bank report from earlier this year projects that 143 millions people in these three regions alone could be internally displaced by environmental disasters by 2050, eclipsing the current figure of 68.5 forcibly displaced people worldwide.

Although most of these expected migrants will remain within the borders of their own country, there is no international framework to support climate refugees who seek to resettle abroad. The United Nations’ 1951 Refugee Convention extends legal protection only to those  fleeing explicit persecution or life-threatening violence, meaning that there is no established network through which a person could seek refugee status or claim asylum if they have been displaced by climate-related causes. Building this framework could be difficult due to the complex factors that influence human migration patterns. It could  be challenging to establish a direct link between climate change and a drought, famine, or other natural disaster that causes wide-spread displacement, especially in communities where the slow-acting environmental effects of climate change can impact local agricultural and economic activity in ways that might appear simply like standard political or economic instability. In Ethiopia, desertification and poor land management has degraded over a third of the country’s land, forcing many farmers to abandon their properties. As these people seek resettlement, the underlying environmental factors may not be obvious to officials and in cases like these,  it can be difficult to establish the difference between voluntary migration and forced evacuation that would make a person eligible for refugee status.

In 2015, New Zealand dealt with this issue head-on when a man from the island nation of Kiribati appealed to the government for refugee status after leaving his home because of rising sea levels. Despite his claims that he was “persecuted passively” by the changing environmental conditions in his home country, the New Zealand government dismissed his appeal and later deported the man and his family.

Although there are challenges associated with classifying climate refugees, there has been growing international collaboration to prepare for the impending wave of displaced persons. One of the leaders on this front is the Nansen Initiative, an independent group of nations organized by the governments of Switzerland and Norway that aims to close “the serious legal gap exists with regard to cross-border movements in the context of disasters and the effects of climate change” with a focus on building international consensus on the treatment of climate refugees. The World Bank also issued a set of recommended strategies for dealing with climate refugees in their 2018 study. The report stresses the importance of continued commitment to decreasing fossil fuel emissions to slow or potentially reverse the adverse effects of greenhouse gases on global climates. The study also highlights the viability of several adaptive strategies that could allow would-be climate refugees to remain in their homes, citing economic diversification as a key factor that could prevent forced migration due to changing agricultural conditions. Greater focus on research and policy regarding climate-related movement is also vital according to both the World Bank and the United Nations’ recent Global Compact on Migration. Establishing legal protections for climate refugees could act as a first step in ensuring fair treatment for those who have been displaced due to climate change. Ultimately, the World Bank report ends on a hopeful note, stating that if the international community takes these recommendations seriously “climate migration may be a reality but it doesn’t have to be a crisis.” As sea levels rise and severe weather events become commonplace, millions of potential climate refugees do not have the luxury of viewing climate change as an abstract threat at the center of endless policy debates, and only when the international community sees climate change on human terms will these refugees get the progress and justice they deserve.


Elizabeth Hopkinson is a first-year in Jonathan Edwards College. You can contact her at