Snoozing the climate migration alarm

November 6, 2022

Climate migrants are a reality. But is there any formal recognition of the issue?

Snoozing the climate migration alarm


e are finally at a point where the conversation around climate change is being taken as a key factor for our survival. Sadly, this has only happened after various segments of the global population have suffered devastating disasters, from droughts to unprecedented floods.

These warming temperatures causing wildfires, rising sea levels and food shortages are exacerbating conflicts, uprooting people’s lives and risking their financial and cultural identities. The recent floods faced by Pakistan that left a third of the country under water are a prime example of this.

According to a report by the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), these natural disasters force more than 20 million people every year to leave their homes around the globe.

These figures are only going to rise with temperatures. A report published this year by UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has highlighted that over the next 30 years, around 143 million people are likely to be uprooted by rising seas, drought, searing temperatures and other climate catastrophes.

Climate migrants have become a glaring reality. However, there is still a long way to any formal recognition of this issue. This is developing into a vicious cycle, starting from rural areas and extending beyond to international borders. A large percentage of climate migrants are residents of rural areas who are forced towards urban centres after they lose their livelihoods and homes to climate-induced disasters (natural disasters). This population influx adds to the already stressed infrastructure, systems and climate-related issues the cities are facing, creating a domino effect where people are forced to cross international borders in search of better survival options.

A majority of victims of these disasters belong to countries that have contributed the least towards the problem. This fact needs to be kept at the centre of any discussion around migration since we know that the debate usually gets a strong opinion regarding closure of borders put forth.

To date, climate migrants are not afforded refugee status under the 1951 Refugee Convention, which provides legal protection to people fleeing persecution due to their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or social group. The UNHCR recognises that 90 percent of refugees, as per its mandate, are from countries at the forefront of climate emergencies.

Climate emergencies add to an area’s overall economy and poverty and create conflict around the distribution of resources leading to crime and political instability.

Due to this intertwined situation, the definition of a climate migrant can also not be black and white, which means that the policy work required needs to rise up to these complicated times. This is something that has been lagging at national and international levels.

Another aspect of climate catastrophe connected to this and often absent from the discourse is the loss of culture and heritage. This damage includes both the physical damage to places of heritage value and the loss as a result of migration.

During the floods, we saw a lot of damage to sufi shrines, places of worship and other heritage sites.

On the urban front, the ever-romanticised winters of the Punjab, now come bearing the alarm of a health crisis. Winters in Lahore used to witness vibrant outdoor cultural activities. While there are other factors that contributed to diminishing those, there is no denying that since smog rules the winter season now, any attempts at reviving those activities need to consider exposing people to respiratory problems.

Communities around the Indus whose culture is linked to the water body are being displaced as the water levels no longer support their livelihoods. In the struggles for a stable life in addition to all the drastic changes that they have to face, they are also losing their unique music and musical instruments.

These are just a few examples.

The 2022 Nationally Determined Contribution report by the United Nations points out that the current combined national climate pledges will put the world on the path for around 2.5°C of warming by the end of this century. This is a degree above the Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C global temperature goal. Compared to last year’s report, this shows an improvement but this does not match the scale of the calamity at hand.

Science has provided a clear picture of where we stand. Experts are also looking for solutions and there are solutions that are scalable and adaptable to local needs. The lag is on the decision-making front.

Time and again, warnings have been given that while the developed world watches others suffer the impact, they need to understand that their economic superiority is by no means a guarantee that they are protected against climate change. A collective practical effort is needed to develop resilience among communities; so is a hard look at excessive consumption.

Only lip service through impressive speeches and slogans is not going to help our survival. If the natural disasters in various countries in 2022 alone are not enough of a wake-up call, what will ever be?

The writer is a communications, public relations and sustainability professional. She tweets at @FatimaArif

Snoozing the climate migration alarm