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The Case of Climate Refugees

Rising temperatures, sinking coastlines, and increasing extreme weather events are some major environmental factors that will force people or communities to move

Rishabh Shrivastava

The latest State of Global Climate Report 2023 by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) declared 2023 as the warmest year on record. 

The annual publication that looks at the rate of climate change through the rise in temperature, sea level changes, loss of ice, melting of glaciers, acidification of seawater and more also highlighted that it was the warmest ten-year period (2014-2023) on record. The year 2023 saw a lot of increase in greenhouse gas emissions and an overall rise in surface level temperature and ocean heat. The rate of increase in methane was the second highest on record after 2021. The rate of increase in nitrous oxide was the highest on record. 

The report also pointed out that heatwaves, wildfires, floods and droughts have also increased all over, disrupting both human life and economic activities. 

Studies over the years have tried to draw attention to extreme weather events. An analysis by NASA has showed that since 1880, the average global temperature on Earth had increased by at least 1.1° Celsius. An analysis by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) showed that human-induced warming reached approximately 1°C above pre-industrial levels in 2017, increasing at 0.2°C per decade. 

What does the State of Global Climate Report on Asia say:

  • Extreme weather events killed more than 2000 people across Asia. 80% of these events were floods and storms related. 

  • 110 people died due to heatwave last year in India from April to June. The report notes that deaths due to heatstroke remain underreported in India.  

  • 600 people were kille due landslides and lightening across India, Pakistan and Nepal in June and July 2023. 

  • Cyclone Mocha that hit Myanmar and bangladesh in May 2023 was the strongest cyclone in the Bay of Bengal in the last decade. 

Climate change and migration: What is the link? 

Nearly 3.5 billion people will leave their homes in the next 50 years to escape extreme heat and move to cooler regions, according to a 2020 study by a team of international scientists

The study also pointed out that even if the rise in temperature is limited to 2°C (in the next 50 years), around 1.5 billion people could still end up becoming climate refugees from places with hot temperatures. 

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) sees extreme heat as a major public health challenge which also leads to productivity and labor loss. It acknowledges that even in the best-case scenario of the lowest possible temperature increase, millions of people will still be displaced with their native regions turned unliveable.

Rising temperatures, sinking coastlines, and increasing extreme weather events like floods, earthquakes and droughts are some major environmental factors that can force people or communities to move out in search of new places to live.

Take for example, the farmers of Uttarakhand. As per a study published in 2021, climate change in Uttarakhand is forcing farmers in the Himalayas to leave farming. The study predicts they will move to the plains over the next 30 years and that the Himalayan state might be 1.5-1.6°C warmer by 2050. 

Women are the most unequally impacted by climate change. Studies have shown how the burden of climate migration falls disproportionately on marginalized groups like women, children and the elderly. The United Nations asserts that around 80 percent of people displaced by climate change are women. Moreover, the current share of women migrants ranges between 48 percent and 52 percent, as per the IOM.

Besides, when men migrate, in many cases women stay back to take care of the elderly, children, and also their farms. Rising heat exacerbates this burden with water scarcity adding to the strain of farm labour and domestic work such as fetching water. 

Despite these challenges, the policies on climate change and migration have struggled to take into account the gendered impacts of climate migration.

How does the law look at the issue of climate migration? 

The Supreme Court in April this year said that people had a fundamental right to be free from adverse impacts of climate change. This ruling can potentially give rise to climate litigations, mainly those representing the country’s vast informal workforce that are at the sharp end of the global climate crisis - escaping droughts and floods in their homes in rural India and getting trapped in the sweltering summers of cities.

The call for a law to protect the rights of climate migrants is intensifying all over. 

In India, policymakers have highlighted the issue in Parliament and a private members bill has tried to legislate on the issue. Climate Migrants (Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill, 2022 was introduced by the Member of Parliament Pardyut Bordoloi from Assam. 

The bill aims to recognize climate migrants and ensure their holistic rehabilitation. It recognizes both sudden disasters such as floods and cyclones and slow-onset disasters like droughts, erosion, glacial melt and desertification. According to Bordoloi, the country immediately needs a legal and policy framework that guarantees the rights of people who have been displaced or forced to migrate due to the climate crisis. 

At an international level, researchers and legal experts argue that the existing refugee law fails to take into account the rights of those rendered as refugees due to climate change. There have been discussions around the amendment of the Refugee Convention of 1951 to consider environmental degradation as a form of persecution. 

Rishabh Shrivastava is a researcher and writer working on issues of law, policy and development


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