Environmental Refugees: In Political Limbo

New America Media, Commentary, Andrew Lam Posted: Oct 12, 2005

Editor's Note: Natural disaster after natural disaster has spotlighted the plight of environmental refugees. But the world's political institutions have yet to recognize the problem.

SAN FRANCISCO--The glaciers are melting and receding. The sea rises to swallow islands and low-lying nations. Factory sewers spew toxic chemicals into rivers and the sea, killing fish and the livelihoods of generations. The trees are gone where the forest used to be, and when it rains the hills slide down the valley and onto the homes. And the hurricanes keep on coming and coming.
Environ. RefugeesAnd in their wake are the millions who must flee house and home.

Unprecedented mass movement defines our global age. But increasingly, among the displaced is a population whose status only in recent years has gained some level of legitimacy: environmental refugees. It categorizes people who suffer from a wide spectrum of environmental disasters, manmade or natural. Their homes have become inhabitable, veritable wastelands.

Until recently, what made a refugee in the world's eyes was largely defined in political terms. The 1951 U.N. Convention relating to the Status of Refugees defined a refugee as a person with a genuine fear of being persecuted for membership in a particular social group or class. These days, the environmental refugee -- not necessarily persecuted, yet nevertheless forced to flee -- is gaining center stage.

There are, according to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR), approximately 18 million political, religious or ethnic refugees in the world today. In comparison, there are "only" an estimated 10 million environmental refugees worldwide. But the term "environmental refugee" has not been officially recognized, and many countries have not bothered to count them, especially if the population is internally displaced. The International Red Cross put the number as high as 25 million in 1999.

A decade ago, ecologist Norman Myers predicted that humanity was slowly heading toward a "hidden crisis" in which ecosystems fail to sustain their inhabitants and people are forced off their land to seek shelter elsewhere.

After Katrina, however, as the world watched in awe and horror while hundreds of thousands displaced Americans scurried across the richest nation on earth searching for new homes, Myers' "hidden crisis" is suddenly not so hidden. We can, with certainty, now add 1 million more to this growing population of environmental refugees.

Indeed, if there is a positive outcome after Katrina, it is that climate change has finally made its presence felt. Being displaced by natural disasters may very well become the central epic of our time.

Many non-governmental organizations and the United Nations itself now estimate that the number of environmental refugees will reach over 150 million by mid-century -- due to factors such as agricultural disruption, deforestation, coastal flooding, shoreline erosion, industrial accidents and pollution.

In an increasingly interconnected world, a series of environmental catastrophes could bring nation-states to their knees in a blink of an eye.

A massive earthquake in California, for instance, could undermine the U.S. economy, and along with it, the global economy. Entire nations could disappear. The World Bank estimates that with a 50-centimeter rise in sea level, two-thirds of Bangladesh, with a population 140 million, would be underwater, resulting in countless deaths and millions of environmental refugees.

Other potential disasters await: Dr. Simon Day of the Benfield Greig Hazard Research Centre at University College in London, finds that the Cumbre Vieja volcano on the island of La Palma, in the Canaries archipelago, is unstable. How quickly it plunges into the sea will determine the size of the tsunami that, in the worst scenario, could rise to 2,000 feet and spread out and travel across the Atlantic to wipe out the eastern coast of the United States.

But one need not evoke dramatic risks, such as tsunamis or the impact of large asteroids, to recognize the disasters that are taking place now. China, for example, remains a hotspot of environmental disaster. It is buckling under unsustainable development, rapid air pollution and toxic rivers. Overpopulation of man and animal have created diseases like SARS and the swine and bird flus. Desertification threatens the country's future. The result of these manmade catastrophes has been the displacement of millions.

John Liu, director of the Environmental Education Media Project (EEMP), who has spent 25 years in China and witnessed the disasters there, has an unapologetic, four-alarms fire warning: "Every ecosystem on the planet is under threat of catastrophic collapse, and if we don't begin to acknowledge and solve them, then we will go down."

"One of the marks of a global civilization is the extent to which we begin to conceive of whole system problems and whole systems responses to those problems," notes political scientist Walt Anderson in his book "All Connected Now." "Events occurring in one part of the world are viewed as a matters of concern for the whole world in general and lead to attempt at collective solutions."

Whether or not humanity can move toward a global civilization will depend by and large on how humanity can act collectively to deal with what's arguably the central issue of our time: global warming.

There's an old saying, "A rising tide lifts all ships." But as the glaciers melt and the poles recede, it portends an ominous threat. The global age will not be so golden as some had predicted unless this dire global challenge is met by whatever means necessary. For rising tides will not just send more refugees fleeing but, if ignored, swallow humanity itself.

Andrew Lam is an editor with New America Media and the author of "Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora"

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