The climate emergency has created a “climate refugee” crisis
“Our world is facing a refugee crisis of a magnitude not seen since the Second World War. This presents us with great challenges and many hard decisions”
Last month, World Refugee Day shone a light on climate refugees. With rising temperatures, large swathes of the planet could become uninhabitable for humans, not only as a result of heat stress, but sea level rise and other weather events.[i] In a previous blog, we touched on the widespread underestimation of weather patterns changes and rising natural disasters from climate change, and in this blog, we focus on the associated human cost.
Today, over 70% of refugees are from climate vulnerable countries,[ii] drawing a link between the climate and refugee crises. By 2050, under current trends, one-tenth of the global population will be displaced as a result of natural disasters and climate change.[iii][iv] Small-island states, in particular, are on the front lines, and could disappear by 2050,[v] including the Maldives and other islands across the south Pacific and Caribbean.
Climate refugees are persons forced to leave their homes to permanently or temporarily relocate to another country, as the result of sudden or gradual environmental disruption. If persons do not move across country boundaries, they would not be counted.
Climatic change as a driver of social regression
Whilst climate change and natural disasters may directly impact on the climate refugee crisis, in creating increasing areas of uninhabitable land, there will also be indirect drivers. Climatic changes are driving a resource crisis, with increasing water and food insecurity. In the three years to 2022, food insecurity more than doubled to affect 345 million people, primarily the world’s poorest, and particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, south and southeast Asia.[vi] Should we see global average temperatures rise by more than 2⁰C above pre-industrial levels, it will become very difficult for crops to adapt with farming becoming increasingly expensive (or inaccessible) for many.[vii] Climate change will continue to exacerbate pre-existing disparities in access to clean water as a result of changing water cycles, severe droughts and floods.[viii]
To 2030 and beyond, extreme weather will push millions more into poverty, by destroying homes and essential resources.[ix] In the poorest economies, significant proportions of the population depend on sectors particularly vulnerable to climate change, including agriculture, forestry and fisheries; vulnerability would be exacerbated by the inability to access insurance protection to buffer climate-related physical impacts.[x] This will be a natural driver of peoples and communities relocating to find economic opportunities in less environmentally volatile surrounds.
In fleeing environmental disaster, climate refugees, as with other refugees, may become vulnerable to modern slavery. With 50 million people already living in modern slavery today,[xi] climate change may drive ever more people into finding new opportunities further afield, which in the worst case, may result in illegal and forced labour. In Bangladesh, India and Ghana, climate induced environmental degradation in recent years has resulted in economic uncertainty and food insecurity for some, particularly the poorest, women and children, with evidence some have been targeted by human traffickers.[xii]
Related climate conflicts are also on the rise
With climate change, we also expect a rise in the pre-conditions for violent conflict, threatening food insecurity and essential resources (including access to clean water), leading to the emergence of non-state disputes and militant groups,[xiii] as well as cross-border disputes amongst states for finite resources (e.g. as they compete for their share of water resources).
Today, we can already see examples of climate change and natural disasters leading to conflict and armament. For example, ongoing conflicts in the Sahel have been associated with climate change, in driving increasing resource scarcity and impacting on populations predisposition for conflict.[xiv] On the Bangladesh-India border, there are reports India’s Border Security Force has used lethal force against Bangladesh civilians seeking to immigrate across the border, to flee flooding.[xv] As more areas of the Earth become uninhabitable, this will mean more immigration into cooler climates, including in the UK and Europe.
Other nations have used climatic change as an opportunity to militarise, for example, the US and Russia militarising the increasingly ice-free Arctic.[xvi]
As climatic zones safe for humans shrink, the likelihood is the closer interaction amongst peoples and nations, potentially fuelling further conflict.
Climate conflicts are wars or conflicts which are provoked by climate change, including as a result of weather pattern changes and natural disasters, and associated impacts.
How can we help?
Given the rising climate refugee crisis, we will all need to engage, as investors and individuals.
This is admittedly a difficult area to respond to, as an investor. In part, due to data availability which is few and far between (versus emissions data). But this is starting to improve, including as a result of the work of organisations seeking to understand how portfolio companies are engaging with and treating refugee communities, or otherwise, developing taxonomies to identify investments with positive refugee impact.[xvii] There are also some related investment opportunities which have been developed. Some initial areas for investors to consider in your portfolios, today, include:
- Contributing to real-world decarbonisation, via strategy design and stewardship processes, to reduce the scale of natural disasters and weather pattern shifts, to help alleviate the future incidence of climate refugees;
- Understanding how your asset managers are engaging with the social aspects of physical risks, within their investment due diligence and risk management processes; and,
- Engaging with corporates to identify/prevent modern slavery violations in their supply chains. This could include understanding human rights violations under the United Nations Global Compact, particularly those linked to environmental change and displaced peoples.
There is a long way to go to better understand the various social facets of climate change, including and beyond the rising loss of high carbon jobs, as we decarbonise the global economy. We will need to respond, via self-education, and dialogue with companies, investors and countries on the same. Beyond our role as investors, there will be opportunities as individuals, to donate to, or volunteer with, relevant charities (see: Charities for Refugees – Refugee Centres & Support Directory | Charity Choice). Regardless of the route, we should start the conversation today.
And: World Economic Forum, Climate refugees – the world’s forgotten victims | World Economic Forum (weforum.org)
Note: climate refugees definition taken from, The concept of ‘climate refugee’ (europa.eu)
[ii] United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 2023: A Moment of Truth for Global Displacement | UNHCR Spotlight
[iv] Journal of Global Health, Global health, climate change and migration: The need for recognition of “climate refugees” — JOGH
[v] World Bank, Climate Stories | Small Island States (worldbank.org)
[vi] World Bank, Climate Explainer: Food Security and Climate Change (worldbank.org)
[vii] World Bank, Climate Explainer: Food Security and Climate Change (worldbank.org)
[viii] International Monetary Fund, Linking Climate and Inequality (imf.org)
[ix] World Bank, Climate Explainer: Food Security and Climate Change (worldbank.org)
[x] International Monetary Fund, Linking Climate and Inequality (imf.org)
[xi] End Slavery, What is modern slavery? | Anti-Slavery International (antislavery.org)
[xii] End Slavery, ClimateMigrationReportSep2021_low_res.pdf (antislavery.org)
[xiii] United Nations Framework on Climate Change, Conflict and Climate | UNFCCC
[xiv] Brookings Institute, Political turmoil in the Sahel: Does climate change play a role? | Brookings
[xv] Human Rights Watch, India: Investigate Alleged Border Force Killings | Human Rights Watch (hrw.org)
[xvi] The Nation, Our Warming Planet Is Becoming a Hotbed of Violence | The Nation
[xvii] Refugee Integration Insight (RII) is helping investors to understand company approaches to refugees. The Refugee Investment Network is meanwhile developing a taxonomy to measure investment impact on refugee communities. See ESG Investor,