What Is a ‘Climate Refugee’ and How Many Are There?

Yves here. The Pentagon was anticipating large-scale climate-change induced migration and resulting conflicts in its scenario planning starting in the early 2000s. Wonder why they didn’t make noise about it then.

By Eve Andrews, who writes Ask Umbra, Grist’s civic advice vertical. Follow her on Twitter: @eefandrews. Originally published at Grist

Q. Dear Umbra,

How many climate refugees are there?

Worried About Number of Dying Earth’s Refugees


You actually raise two important questions here: One, do we know how many people have been forced to relocate due to climate change? And two, what should we be calling them?

Debating semantics may seem useless when we’re talking about the future of our planet and its people. But the words we choose can greatly influence the actions we are inspired to take in response.

There are pros and cons to calling those forced to move due to climate change “refugees.” On the one hand, it certainly communicates the urgency of the climate situation — ecosystems are changing so quickly and so unprecedentedly that many people don’t recognize the places they once called home. (And not in a “this neighborhood’s been taken over by yuppies!” way; in a, “wow, it’s too hot to breathe” way.) The word “refugee” fits the idea of millions of people being forced to leave their homes due to climate change, and that is certainly a convincing argument that we are facing a dire, global emergency.

But then there’s the way that the word “refugee” is used to stir up xenophobia. In fact, all you have to do is turn on cable news to hear some politician or pundit avidly fearmongering about Salvadoran or Syrian or Sudanese refugees pounding at the borders of wealthier (read: whiter) nations. Instead of inspiring people to do something proactive about climate change, like vote, or roll your car into a ditch, the idea of so many people displaced by global warming can be weaponized into a rationale for border walls, military action, or other forms of protectionism.

In other words, we’re at a very, very weird moment in the trajectory of climate change awareness. With many people already suffering from climate consequences and many, many more poised to join them, we must convince those in resource-chugging countries to take action without inflaming their, at times misinformed, sense of self-preservation. The scale of action that must be taken is both overwhelming and overdue, and it requires seeing ourselves as a global community. But it’s an incredibly complicated thing to do, and we must choose our words wisely, as pedantic as that can seem.

Now to the numbers part of your question: The Institute for Economics and Peace, an Australian think tank, recently estimated that in 2017 alone, 18 million people — 61.5 percent of global displacements — were forced to move due to natural disasters. (Those natural disasters are not universally caused by climate change, but global warming is predicted to cause more frequent and intense disasters.) And while projections vary, sources agree that those numbers are going to get a whole lot higher. That same report noted that nearly 1 billion people currently live in areas of “very high” or “high” climate exposure, which could result in millions of people displaced by climate change in the future. A 2018 World Bank report estimated that by 2050, there would be 143 million climate change-driven migrants from the regions of Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and southeast Asia alone.

But, if we’re talking about legally designated “climate refugees,” there’s a much different number being thrown around: zero.

That’s because “refugee” has a specific legal definition with certain criteria that need to be met to be able to apply for asylum in a new country, including religious and/or social persecution. And most legal scholars and international lawyers will say that most people who move or are forced to move due to climate disasters are not technically refugees because most of those criteria don’t apply to them.

In 2015, Ioane Teitiota, a man from the Pacific Island nation of Kiribati, applied for asylum as a refugee in New Zealand under the claim that he and his family were endangered by rising seas swallowing their home. The claim was rejected by New Zealand courts on the grounds that it was still possible to live within the nation of Kiribati, regardless of whether his particular home had been rendered uninhabitable.

Now, there is the theory of climate change as a “risk multiplier,” meaning that natural disasters such as droughts or hurricanes can further destabilize already shaky states of peace, triggering wars or other violent conflicts. By that logic, those displaced by climate-driven or -worsened conflicts could qualify legally as refugees.

But some legal advocates worry that waiting for those forced into precarious situations by climate change to technically qualify for refugee status misses the point entirely. “We don’t want to wait until people can qualify as refugees before we act,” said Lauren Nishimura, a human rights attorney and current Ph.D. student at Oxford University. “That’s just silly when we know these things” — referring to climate displacement and climate disasters — “are happening now.”

So, to recap, trying to find the words to describe those impacted by the current climate crisis is fraught, both politically and legally. And according to Nishimura, putting numbers to the problem doesn’t capture the nuances associated with climate-driven movement either.

Climate displacement can be forced by the worst circumstances — think people facing famine, lack of water, conflict, or their homes literally ending up underwater — and many communities worst-impacted by climate change have had the smallest roles in creating the climate problem. But there are also groups who have the means to move before things get really bad, and there’s an argument for those “early decision” migrants, we could call them, actually improving overall climate resilience. And then there are those who see their communities collapse around them, and still don’t have the resources to move at all.

Instead of getting wrapped up in the definition of who can qualify for asylum, Nishimura advocates for climate solutions that focus on human rights: securing livelihoods for those forced to move due to climate change, developing infrastructure to ease the lives of those unable to move, and building capacity in places that will be destinations for climate migrants.

One barrier to building that kind of infrastructure and programming and capacity is cost, of course. That requires tackling the question of who should pay for the plight of the climate-vulnerable. Again, the nations most impacted by climate disasters are usually those least equipped to adapt to it.

Maxine Burkett, professor of law at the University of Hawaii and global fellow at the Wilson Center, used “climate-vulnerable” in a legal article she wrote in 2009 that seeded the idea of climate reparations. (That idea went on to be instrumental in the ‘loss and damages’ component of the Paris Agreement, which concerns the transfer of resources from wealthy countries to developing countries to compensate them for climate harm.) I asked her why she chose that term in particular.

“I don’t see vulnerability as inherent — it’s an external factor that needs to be addressed,” she said over the phone. “Why are people so differentially impacted? What were the root causes of it? And frankly, how do we take this up in our decision-making moving forward?”

Since Burkett wrote that paper in 2009, there’s been very little meaningful action to rectify those inequalities. Meanwhile, the climate crisis has accelerated at an astonishing speed. So that brings us back to this weird, terrible moment of climate reality we’re in: Those in powerful positions have long known about the human impacts of the crisis — they just didn’t do anything about it when it would have been most helpful to act. We’re already playing catch-up. What’s to be done?

I think an absolute basic foundation for trying to wrap your head around the idea of “climate displacement” and “climate refugees,” WANDER, is to understand the history of the climate situation we’re in. Wealthy, industrialized countries produce the lion’s share of the emissions that have led to our current crisis. Less industrialized, poorer nations are now paying the price in the form of climate transformations and resource scarcity. That seems really, really unfair, right? Maybe those wealthy countries have some historical obligation to help those they’ve harmed?

Maybe these aren’t “climate refugees” or “climate migrants” or “climate victims,” but rather people who deserve some justice?



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  1. Sound of the Suburbs

    An open globalised world was always going to be an environmental disaster.
    What does the winner in an open globalised world look like?

    China was the big winner from an open, globalised world and it went from almost nothing to a global superpower.

    Maximising profit is all about reducing costs.

    China had coal fired power stations to provide cheap energy.
    China had a low cost of living so employers could pay low wages.
    China had low taxes and a minimal welfare state.
    China also had lax regulations reducing environmental and health and safety costs.

    China had all the advantages in an open, globalised world.

    It did have, but now China has become too expensive and developed Eastern economies are off-shoring to places like Vietnam, Bangladesh and the Philippines.

    An open, globalised world is a race to the bottom on costs and the West is already paying the price with massive off-shoring.

    Now we can see why globalisation has been an environmental disaster.

    It was always going to happen when maximising profit is all about reducing costs.

    Why do US firms off-shore to Mexico?
    See list above.

    US companies prefer Mexico with its cheap labour, lax health and safety standards, and lack of environmental regulations. They can expose workers to hazardous chemicals and just pump toxic waste straight out into the environment, without incurring the costs associated in dealing with them in an environmentally friendly way.


    Female workers are best as they are less likely to stick up for themselves and are easier to exploit.

    Every avenue must be explored to reduce costs.

    The lower the costs, the higher the profit.

    1. Sound of the Suburbs

      Why do progressives support a neoliberal, open, globalised world?
      They haven’t thought about what this means.

      1. Michael Fiorillo

        They don’t want to think about it, because it would mean recognizing their complicity, if not their professional enabling of it. After all, what is modern liberalism, if not support/enabling of globalisation and neoliberal economics, with a little Colors of Benetton-style multi-culti lipstick smeared across it?

      2. jrs

        But the history of this: the left did not support it. The protest of the WTO and GATT etc., the battle in Seattle, the left did not support it. They were crushed, it happened anyway. The left lost. It often has, and thus Trump etc., if they hadn’t … If the protestors had won, we might have trade, but it would look very different.

        Progressives well that’s a weasly term,meaning anything and nothing, sometimes I use it for the left carelessly, but it’s just as readily used by others for whomever.

    2. Right Bank Left Wing

      Totally unrelated, but I see you posting a lot on the FT and always appreciate your comments. Glad to see you come here too (I’ve been out of the Naked Capitalism loop for a while now)

  2. Larry

    This being Grist, facts reported should be checked. Such as this:

    “The claim was rejected by New Zealand courts on the grounds that it was still possible to live within the nation of Kiribati, regardless of whether his particular home had been rendered uninhabitable.”

    Let’s see what the actual rulings say.

    Justice Wild:

    “Did the Tribunal err in law in its findings of fact (at [73]) that the applicant’s supplies of food and water were adequate, in that there was evidence to support that the applicant and his children born in New Zealand would face severe difficulties in view of overcrowding and future effects of climate change leading to further deterioration? …

    “But the Tribunal was right to find that the supplies of food and water for Mr Teitiota and his family would be adequate if they were required to return to Kiribati. …the Tribunal was, on the evidence it heard, entitled to find that Mr Teitiota and his family on return to Kiribati could ‘resume their prior subsistence life with dignity'”

    The Appellate court ruling:

    “In relation to the Refugee Convention, while Kiribati undoubtedly faces challenges, Mr Teitiota does not, if returned, face ‘serious harm'”

    Much of the rest of the article is equally fallacious.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Your citation of the ruling does not disprove the Grist claims. You did not quote anything from the ruling that contradicted the author’s statement.

      And ad hominem attacks violate our written site Policies.

      Better trolls. please.

  3. divadab

    The human population of the planet is massively borrowing from the future and the bill is starting to come due. The net effect over the next 20 generations will be a smaller human population living at a much lower level of material prosperity on an environmentally-degraded planet. And the reduction of population will not be pretty.

    But humans, the most adaptable and successful species on the planet, will of course survive. The lineages which survive and prosper will have had no time for the luxury of compassion for those who do not.

  4. skk

    I listen to Prof Bulliet’s 46 lecture course – History of the world 10,000 years ago to now, and he relates human migrations to past periods of climate change. Examples include the cooling period and it’s consequences on Danes, Swedes, Norwegians; the desertification of the Sahara and Rajasthan regions and the concentration of peoples into the river valleys of the Nile, Indus and Mesopotamia , the general impoverishment of people in Western Europe in the mini ice age in the 6th century.
    Looked at structurally, historically, root causewise, totally today’s migrations are a consequence of the current climate change period.

    And of course, ” What are they supposed to do ? Where are they supposed to go ? ” If we are all connected, the lesser affected areas have to make room. Or being forced to do so.

    1. jrs

      And it will be another driver of run-away climate change probably, another feedback loop. Because if the whole world does move to the U.S. (or Europe etc.), well that’s a high resource, high fossil fuel, lifestyle!

      But there are some things that can be done to help them adapt where they are for now I believe and it might be worthwhile, because I’m not sure it’s ALL climate change at this point, but climate change in existing social contexts.

  5. rd

    Pretty soon, we won’t have to think about the abstract, such as islands in the Pacific.

    Flooding and tariffs are likely to put some farmers out of business in floodplains in the Mississippi watershed. They will become climate refugees as they sell their land and go somewhere with uncertain prospects.

    In the Carolinas, there are floodplains that have been walloped multiple times over the past several years. At what point do those people no longer have the wherewithal to rebuild? They will also sell or abandon their land and move.

    Rising seas will make some communities untenable along the Eastern seaboard and Gulf Coast. Block by block, they will have to leave. If their job is still secure, they can simply move to another community within commuting distance. If their work is insecure, then they can also become rolling stones.

    Puerto Rico took several hard hits and people have moved from that island. They are already climate refugees.

    Wildfires in California and elsewhere are likely to force entire communities to make hard decisions about rebuilding. People and jobs may need to move back out of those wildfire zones. Where do they go?

    I put New Orleans/Baton Rouge in a special category because the Old River Control Structure and the levees/flood walls have kept New Orleans on artificial life support for a couple of generations now. The failures during Katrina were due to design, construction, and maintenance failures, not due to climate change. A rupture of the ORCS would route the Mississippi down the Atchafalaya which it has wanted to do for decades before climate change became a thing. Climate change will simply make it more difficult to keep the life support going.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      It seems unfair that this should happen to the global warming accepters who tried to mobilize society to prevent it.

      But it is totally fair and just that this would happen to the global warming deniers who did their best and hardest to MAKE it all happen.

      “Just and Righteous Altogether are the Judgements of the Lord.”

  6. Susan the other`

    If the Pentagon has been analyzing this for 20+ years they should have a plan. We roll our eyes at the thought but the military has the manpower and the equipment to transition refugees, help them settle, maintain a certain order and insure supplies. So that’s good. I’d be willing to bet that they have a far higher estimate for refugees than the World Bank’s 143 million by 2050. It isn’t just subsistence living that will be wiped out by weather and rising oceans. All of the industrialized/rich countries have highly developed coastlines; people love the ocean and trade and commerce thrive there as well. So 143 million isn’t even the half of it. You’d really think the World Bank would be looking at climate change in order to mitigate their own risks. I’m guessing that’s impossible. But calling it a mere 143 million by 2050 might look reassuring on their balance sheet. It would be foolish for anyone to actually believe it. Think of all the mega-cities on the coasts or at sea level. Add it all up. I think the United States could easily have 50 million displaced wanderers. And after witnessing the devastation to the Midwest this spring, I’m wondering about the plan to relocate us all. Climate change is a “risk multiplier” kinda like a giant meteor is.

    1. Ford Prefect

      I think their plans are about things like what to do about Norfolk Naval Station with sea level rise. Also, when they realized that a high percentage of their losses in Afghanistan and Iraq were due to IEDs blowing up fuel convoys, they put a major focus on sustainable outposts that don’t require anywhere near as much fuel.

      They are probably also looking at climate refugees as strategic threats and figuring out how to address that threat.

    2. Synoia

      Thank you for emphasizing the sea level rise threat to Coastal Cities.

      I’d add Sewage or Sanitation plants close to sea level as a multiplier for making areas uninhabitable, or disease prone.

      If those are considered the area which become uninhabitable stretches inland for a considerable distance. In CA, the OC up to 10 to 20 miles inland is service by a coastal sanitation plant.

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        People in the no-more-treatment-plants zone could begin finding or designing and then applying and using waterless toilet methods.

        In detached housing suburbs, people could put in waterless ComposToilets of which various designs already exist.

        In apartments, office buildings, any and all other buildings with large bunches of people and toilets . .
        all kinds of approaches to mass-quantity pee-poo harvesting anaerobic digesters could be installed and used. If enough methane were produced thereby to be “worth gathering” for energy purposes for the building, it could be gathered and used for just that purpose. And the remaining solids would not have any industrial poisons, PFAS, etc. etc. The only poisons it would contain would be residues of all the drugs that all the people in the buildings involved are taking. So it would be safER than sewage plant chemo-biosolids for farming and gardening.

  7. TG

    The idea of “climate refugees” is simply.a fraud.

    Example: In Syria, the government criminalized the sale and possession of contraceptives, and spouted propaganda that it was every woman’s patriotic duty to have six kids each. The population doubled from 5 to 10 million in just 18 years. It then doubled again, from 10 to 20 million, in just another 18 years. Meanwhile the overall trend for rainfall was in line with historical records. The aquifers were drained, and things fell apart.

    So let’s recap: rainfall was, on average, constant (as with most arid countries, it varied from year to year, which is why you need aquifers and dams to smooth things out. Which would have worked fine with just 5 million Syrians). The population was quadrupled in a short period of time. This means that per capita rainfall was reduced to 25% of what it initially had been over this time. Blaming the Syrian refugee crisis on ‘climate change’ is not a mistake, it’s a lie.

    It may well be the case that, in the long run, dumping massive amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere is a very bad idea. But the blaming of current hordes of third-world refugees fleeing the obvious consequences of having more children than they can support, on ‘climate change,’ now that is a not true.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Making shit up is against our site Policies.

      High birth rates in Syria are long-standing and are a cultural norm, not the result of government intervention. See this 2010 article:

      Syria now has a population of 20 million people, with a growth rate that remains one of the world’s highest at about 2.4 percent. But it has declined since averaging 3.2 percent from 1947-94, according to the Syrian Commission for Family Affairs.


      And I don’t find support on Google for your claim that contraception is illegal in Syria. Abortions are, except to save the mother’s life.

    2. Jeremy Grimm

      So let’s start with your assertion: “the idea of ‘climate refugees’ is simply a fraud.” One example is not a counter-argument. The example you selected is problematic, and do you receive missives from the government in Syria giving you a detailed knowledge of Syrian propaganda — just askin’? The statement “rainfall was, on average constant (as with most arid countries, it varied from year to year …” is curious. Blaming the Syrian refugee crisis on ‘climate change’ does underestimate the impacts war might have on a Syrian’s desire to relocate. And as I recall ‘climate change’ was suggested as a driver underlying the conflicts in Syria which lead to the war there. However, I believe that notion underplays the work of other factors leading to the warfare in Syria.

      The world population has and is growing beyond the means for its support. I believe the reasons for this are far more complex than your simplistic beliefs. Fortunately, some of those most needy and avaricious in their claims on the available support are making plans to emigrate to Mars.

      I suppose the idea of climate refugees will make more sense to you as people start moving out of Florida and Delaware in response to some of the long term effects of dumping of massive amounts of CO2 into atmosphere. Your notions of “more children than [we] can support” may get some exercise even sooner if there are a few more climate related problems with the weather in our farm belt in the next several years.

      1. Cal2

        Lack of rainfall and high fertility causes a lot of refugees.
        Combine these two for why some cannot sustain overpopulation, or, any population.



        “The vast majority of the countries in the world with the highest fertility rates are in Africa, with Niger topping the list at 7.153 children per woman, followed by Somalia at 6.123 children per woman. The Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali and Chad follow at 5.963, 5.922 and 5.797 children per woman, respectively. The North African country of Tunisia has the lowest fertility rate on the continent at 2.147 children per woman – a figure that puts it roughly in the middle of the two hundred countries listed.”

        Walter Lundquist in his book Geodestinies,


        mentioned the one reason Africa never developed historically, was the ease of growing food. Paraphrasing; “you can throw a sweet potato cutting over your shoulder and a new one grows. ” If their ample rainfall fails, they are in deep trouble. The population of Nigeria will be larger than that of the U.S.,in one generation, for example.


        1. Jeremy Grimm

          Lack of rainfall — or too much rainfall, or large hail, or an unseasonal frost, or a heat wave … causes crop failures. High rates of population growth lead to overpopulation of the available food. Combine the two and you get starvation. Make a region unlivable — war or rising oceans or relentless heat waves perhaps combined with high humidity or frequent hurricanes or tornadoes or … and you get refugees. Fashion regions of great poverty and lack of opportunity and then spread images of better places with ‘more’ and you get immigrants.

          I sense a certain moral tone in your comment to which I believe you should give more careful consideration. In the past, large families were needed for labor on the farm and as one kind of insurance against high rates of death by disease, warfare, starvation. But old ways change slowly. Who would you make culpable for the growth of populations in Africa or the Middle East or …? And then consider that overpopulation of a resource can occur where populations are in decline but the critical resource is in more rapid decline.

        2. stan6565

          Or you could inverse paraphrase Mr Lundquist and posit a question, “why is it that peoples of northern hemisphere achieved greatest civilisational, industrial and cultural advancement in the last thousand or so years”.

          Well, the simplest answer that springs to mind, they had to work hardest to get food on the table, and this must have triggered the old brain cells into fastest of developments. Think, James Cook sailed out of muddy Yorkshire waters to discover Southern Oceans. Horatio Nelson sailed out of murky Norfolk waters to defeat combined hostile fleets at Trafalgar.

          And Vikings before that.

          This is evolution in action, and furthering of the fittest. The populations of African countries mentioned have no idea what to do when they cannot simply pick fruits off trees when hungry. And when no more fruit is available to be picked off trees, the options remaining are;
          1. Eat neighbours and their children, nice meal,
          2. Eat own children, healthy snack,
          3. Go to Europe because there the corrupt governments in pay of slave labour big businesses provide free houses and substinanced living.

    3. Plenue

      “It may well be the case that, in the long run, dumping massive amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere is a very bad idea.”

      ‘This thing we’ve objectively known about since 1895 might be true.’

      I really do hope they pay you well.

  8. Synoia

    I read that Africans are buying Plane Tickets (not historically bought by the poor in Africa), flying to Ecuador (which means they also could afford a passport), and then walking for 4 months to the US border.

    There appears a similar movement of Africans across the Sahara to Europe.

    Is leaving Africa driven by Climate Change, or other factors, such as discrimination? Or is it a medley of factors?

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      The African plane-ticket-buyers are probably advanced the money for the tickets by the International People Smuggling Syndicates. If they reach their target of destination, they are then sent into sex-slavery or other slavery to “pay back” the loan for the tickets.

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