In the days before Christmas about three million people were directly affected by one of the worst storms to hit the Philippines in 50 years. More than half a million lost their homes. Such weather phenomena, like the typhoon that left hundreds of thousands displaced in Mozambique in 2019, are increasing in size, strength and frequency – and experts point to greenhouse gas emissions from human activity as the culprit. Filipino journalist Arnel Murga wrote about how his country contributes less than 0.4% of the world’s excess emissions while the global north is responsible for 92%. The people with the least ability to rebuild are paying the price for problems produced in richer countries.
Sudden disasters are one of the many factors that turn people into refugees, but is it now time to think of the climate emergency as the overarching reason behind the world’s displacement crisis – with 84 million people at the 2021 count? The UN, in its collective political wisdom, recognises only 26.6 million people as refugees, leaving out key groups such as the 5.9 million Venezuelans who have fled economic meltdown – a crisis that has the climate emergency as its backdrop.
It is not just people in the South Pacific – whose islands have sunk beneath their feet – who can be classed as climate refugees, but also 13.5 million Syrians, made homeless by a war that experts say was triggered by the climate crisis, pointing to the severe drought that preceded it.
Despite the ill-informed panic in places such as the south-east of England, the vast majority of people (85% as of 2021) who lose their homes and become refugees don’t arrive in Europe. Instead, they stay in developing countries, those same places bearing the brunt of the economic pressures and food and water shortages that accompany the climate crisis for which the west is mostly responsible.
A migrant, a refugee, an asylum seeker, a climate refugee – is it time we stopped counting the differences? And started acknowledging that displacement is what happens when people find their living conditions intolerable, almost always through no fault of their own. The Guardian and Observer’s charity appeal on behalf of those affected by the climate crisis is still live. The stories we have covered for the appeal are worth reading to understand just how many people that is.
Tracy McVeigh, editor, Global development
“We are simply talking about the very life support system of this planet.”Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, Germany’s former chief climate scientist (2009)
“Burning all fossil fuels would create a very different planet than the one that humanity knows. The palaeoclimate record and ongoing climate change make it clear that the climate system would be pushed beyond tipping points, setting in motion irreversible changes, including ice sheet disintegration with a continually adjusting shoreline, extermination of a substantial fraction of species on the planet, and increasingly devastating regional climate extremes” and “this equates 400,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs per day 365 days per year” . James Hansen et al. 2012 and James Hansen 2012.