8 November 2017
Often when we think of refugees we imagine those fleeing war and violence. Homes destroyed by bombs and lives taken by guns are the pictures and stories which fill our screens and our minds. But the past few months have reminded us all that devastation comes from elsewhere, too. From the floods in India to the hurricanes which battered the Caribbean, we have seen the destruction climate breakdown is already inflicting around the world. The UN estimates a staggering 22.5 million have been displaced by climate or weather related events in the last ten years. Now senior US military and security experts from the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) have warned that climate change will create the world’s biggest refugee crisis. This is terrifying but it should not be surprising. It has long been known that the worst effects of climate change will be felt by some of the poorest people in the world – those least able to respond. Already famine in Chad is causing starvation, while in Bangladesh rising sea levels are threatening livelihoods and lives. The island of Tuvalu is in such stark danger of being wiped out entirely by rising sea levels it has struck a deal with New Zealand to take its 11,600 citizens should the worst happen. For people in these countries, caring about climate change is not an ideological optional extra. It is their daily, lived reality. It is the reason they have left and lost their homes, friends and families. Yet unlike those fleeing persecution, war or violence, people displaced by climate or weather disasters are not recognised as refugees by the UN, robbing them of vital human rights and leaving them unable to access the help they so desperately need.
With their homelands devastated or wiped out entirely by climate disasters, there is little chance those forced to flee will ever be able to return – as is sometimes possible with refugees of war. And when people do find a new home, they often struggle to find work as rural skills such as herding and farming are not transferable to life in a city. As the COP23 UN climate summit meets in Bonn this week the Green Party, along with grassroots campaigns like Hidden Voices, is calling on the UN to give climate refugees the recognition they deserve. We are all citizens of the world, and climate refugees urgently need a legal framework which guarantees their rights and protects them from harm. Last week the UN warned we are on course for 3C of global warming, shattering climate change targets and threatening to wipe many cities off the map altogether. This is the bigger picture we cannot ignore. If September’s hurricanes taught us anything it is what happens when those with the greatest ability to tackle climate breakdown fail in their responsibility to those who are most vulnerable to its effects. If we really want to solve the refugee crisis, we must stop creating climate refugees. When the Hurricanes struck, my co-leader Caroline Lucas stood up in Parliament urging Ministers to show leadership by implementing the policies we need to tackle climate change. In return she was accused of lacking humanity in a move which was symptomatic of a Government which doesn’t want to admit the real damage its complacent, reckless and ultimately deadly approach to climate change is causing. The science is clear: climate change is happening and human activity is making it worse. The Paris Agreement on Climate Change is an example of what can be achieved when countries come together to face the challenges of the future – and we must not let its 1.5C target slip from our grasp.
With a climate denier in the White House it is more important than ever that governments across the world fully and rapidly implement the Paris Agreement. At home, Britain has the chance to show real world leadership on climate change – by building a renewable energy revolution. As an island we could generate over six times what we need in electricity just from offshore renewables. We have a moral duty to protect the world’s most vulnerable – not least because of our huge responsibility as a country for contributing to climate change from which millions already suffer. The efforts of governments across the world to tackle climate change are so bad about 900 legal cases have been filed against them. The truth is it is within the gift of those in power to limit the devastating effects of climate change – but it is also within their gift to offer protection and refuge to those worst affected when they fail. Both are essential if we are to stand any chance of avoiding the worst refugee crisis in the world.
Originally published in The i