Celebrating Earth Day in their heart-warming way, more and more and more right-wing and climate-denialist websites are seizing upon a 2005 report from the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) predicting that climate change would create 50 million “climate refugees” by 2010—and gloating that it hasn’t come to pass. This is essentially a replay of last year’s controversy over the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s accidental reversal of two digits in its prediction of when the world’s glaciers would disappear. We’ve often warned against putting too much credence in the crystal ball set who think that making dire near-future predictions is a winning way to achieve political aims. But again, the critics are getting away with spinning it as “this whole global warming thing is a bunch of propaganda.”
Some of the more rational (if still smug) gloating was provided by the Wall Street Journal:
In 2005, the U.N. Environment Program (UNEP) published a color-coded map under the headline “Fifty million climate refugees by 2010.” The primary source for the prediction was a 2005 paper by environmental scientist Norman Myers.
Six years later, this flood of refugees is nowhere to be found, global average temperatures are about where they were when the prediction was made—and the U.N. has done a vanishing act of its own, wiping the inconvenient map from its servers.
And by The Australian:
A UN climate body has been forced to back away from damaging claims that the world could be flooded with up to 50 million “climate refugees”—by last year.
The predictions date back to 2005 when the UN University in Bonn in Germany argued for a new category of refugee to cover people fleeing environmental catastrophes such as sea-level rises, desert expansion and flooding. As recently as last week, a website affiliated with the UN Environment Program, which lists climate change as one of its six priorities, carried a map outlining where the refugees would come from, under the heading “Fifty million climate refugees by 2010”.
Low-lying Pacific islands, such as the tiny nation of Tuvalu, have been considered potential sources of climate refugees as they are submerged by rising sea levels.
However, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimated the number of all refugees worldwide at the end of 2009 to be 15.2 million, and the total number of people subject to forced displacement—including asylum-seekers and people displaced within their own countries—at 43.3 million.
Well, the situation probably isn’t as upbeat as these accounts would lead us to believe. For starters, the UN’s definition of “refugee” only applies to those who have been forced across international borders. So, for instance, only a very small fraction of the estimated 3.7 million displaced in Colombia are technically considered “refugees”—the rest are “internally displaced persons,” and therefore do not contribute to the UNHCR’s 15.2 million figure. Similarly, of the 2 million displaced in the Darfur crisis, only the 250,000 who have actually crossed the border into Chad are technically “refugees.” (Figures from Amnesty International) The 1.4 million displaced within Somalia do not contribute to the 614,000 “officially registered” Somali refugees worldwide. (Refugees International)
The case of Darfur is particularly instructive, because it is a conflict which experts have again and again and again linked to climate change. The immediate cause of the displacement of the 2 million may have been the marauding Janjaweed militias, not desertification per se. But increased competition over shrinking water resources and grazing lands linked to desertification (in turn linked to climate change) may have had a hand in setting off the war. One 2009 study by a team of researchers from Stanford, UC Berkeley, New York University and Harvard attempted to quantify the link between climate change and armed conflict in Africa:
In the study, the researchers first combined historical data on civil wars in sub-Saharan Africa with rainfall and temperature records across the continent. They found that between 1980 and 2002, civil wars were significantly more likely in warmer-than-average years, with a 1-degree Celsius increase in temperature in a given year raising the incidence of conflict across the continent by nearly 50%.
So, while we have absolutely nothing invested in UNEP’s 50 million figure, we submit that the term “climate refugee” is one that could apply in several actually existing cases around the world, depending on how you apply the mathematics and definition. Maybe the 2 million displaced from their villages in Darfur should be considered as going towards that projected 50 million.
As for the fact that Tuvalu hasn’t disappeared beneath the waves yet, we think the island’s residents can be forgiven for not being so sanguine about this eventuality. People in the Maldives and Bangladesh are similarly not so dismissive of dire warnings. There are few climate change skeptics in high Andean cities like Huaraz, Peru, which could be wiped from the map by melting glaciers. Yet the gloating denialist websites all seem to be based in the gas-guzzling First World. Funny, eh? Nothing so demonstrates like the geography of climate change skepticism the truth of the old Marxist saw: “Where you stand depends on where you sit.”
See our last post on the climate crisis.