Climate change could displace 600 million people, report warns

04/11/2009 17:24


By Ahmed Naish

Climate change could force up 150 million climate refugees to flee their countries in the next 40 years, a report from the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) warns.

The EJF claim that between 500 to 600 million people, equivalent to ten per cent of the world’s population, are at extreme risk of displacement by climate change.

A day after coming to power last year, President Mohamed Nasheed declared his intentions of setting up a sovereign fund to relocate the Maldives 350,000 people if sea level rises swamped the island nation.

“We are just 1.5m over sea level and anything over that, any rise in sea level - anything even near that - would basically wipe off the Maldives, so we will be affected very quickly - and very soon,” said Nasheed to the authors of the EJA report. 

As one of the lowest-lying countries in the world which include many Pacific island countries as well as Carribbean islands.

The Maldives for instance is vulnerable to sea level rises. In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said sea level rises of up to 59cm within a century would submerge many of the archipelago’s 1,192 islands.

Around 80 per cent of the Maldives total land area is less than 1m above sea level and the highest point is 2.4m above sea level.

Further, the EJA report noted that 40 per cent of the population, 70 per cent of fisheries infrastructure, 80 per cent of powerhouses and 99 per cent of all tourist accommodation is within 100m of the coastline.

The report stated that nearly one-third of countries have more than 10 per cent of their land within 5m of sea level while 11 countries are below 5m and five of these would be threatened by only a 1m sea level rise.

Sea level rises due to melt-water from glaciers and ice sheets as well as thermal expansion of water in seas and oceans will result in beach erosion, coral bleaching, coastal flooding, damaged coastal infrastructure and salinisation of freshwater sources, the EJA report adds.

Small Island Developing States, such as the Maldives, have the largest share of land in low-lying coastal zones and are home to six million people. These countries, the report notes, are disproportionately burdened with the impacts of climate change, despite being among the smallest emitters.

Further, climate change affects those countries that are least able to adapt as well as people who are both economically and socially disadvantaged. Paradoxically, the report said, many of the countries worst hit have the lowest greenhouse gas emissions per capita.

The report advised the creation of a legal term for people who migrate as a result of environmental degradation and climate change so that they are offered protection.

It added that in 2006, delegates from the Maldives government proposed an amendment to the 1951 UN Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees to extend the definition to include environmental refugees.

The EJF argues the need for a convention for environmental refugees and in the report, Professor Frank Biermann and Ingrid Boas of Vrije University in Holland, proposed five points to be included in the convention:

    * Planned and voluntary resettlement and reintegration as opposed to ad hoc emergency relief responses
    * Climate refugees to be treated the same as permanent immigrants
    * Any convention must be tailored to an entire group of people, including entire nations
    * Support for national governments to protect their people
    * Protection of climate refugees must be seen as a global problem and global responsibility

The foundation further contends a financial mechanism must be set up to ensure funding is available for climate change adaptation.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change estimates that US$49 billion to US$171 billion will be needed annually by 2030 for adaptation to climate change.

Putting this figure into context, the report noted that in 2008, the nine biggest US banks paid US$32.6 billion in bonuses.

The report comes less than a month before world leaders will congregate in Copenhagen to hammer out a successor to the Kyoto Protocol.

Discussions have so far stalled with the developing world arguing rich, industrialised nations must take the lion’s share of the responsibility for climate change. Meanwhile, the latter are loath to commit to drastic cuts in emissions.

Last month, Nasheed led his cabinet in the world’s first underwater dive to highlight the country’s vulnerability to rising sea levels and call for leaders to commit to cuts that will reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide to 350ppm.