Get Ready, the Environmental Refugees Are Coming

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9 mins read

Another Earth Day is upon us and headlines are ablaze with projections for climbing temperatures, rising seas, increasing wildfires, hurricanes and other natural disasters along with urgent calls to action. Industry and activist panel discussions highlight green tech as the answer while politicians in Washington tout climate change legislation. Meanwhile, community beach cleanups abound. Issues of economic justice and immigration are discussed almost as an afterthought, but it’s time to recognize and address the undeniable importance of these topics. One of the most consequential aspects of climate change is its role as a catalyst for a mass migration that will dwarf anything seen before in human history.

The term “environmental refugee” was first coined in 1985 by Essam El-Hinnawi and defined initially as migration as a result of the loss of use of land directly attributable to environmental disruption. The meaning of this term has since evolved to encompass those displaced not only by the direct impact of natural disasters but those forced to leave their homes temporarily or permanently as a result of economic crisis, geopolitical conflict, crime or other catastrophic change arising out of environmental disruption. Based on current projections, one billion people may become environmental refugees by 2050

One. Billion. People. 

The sheer enormity of that number is staggering. Even with aggressive intervention, we are so far down the climate change rabbit hole that unprecedented numbers of environmental refugees are a certainty, it’s just a matter of how many. The world is completely unprepared to manage human migration on this scale. It is critical that all nations, particularly developed and wealthy ones such as the United States, prepare for re-homing entire swathes of humanity, which requires reimagining the perception and management of migration.

Refugees waiting at the US border in Matamoros, Mexico

In fact, large-scale migration by environmental refugees has already begun, and as our current immigration “crisis” demonstrates, we are ill-prepared. Immigration at our southern border has morphed into one of the biggest hot button political and humanitarian issues of our time. White nationalist politicians have stoked fear and demonized and dehumanized refugees from politically unstable and impoverished countries such as Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Under the Trump administration, refugees were characterized as criminals and freeloaders, borders were closed, and children were ripped from their families and kept in unsafe and inhumane conditions while our immigration system was dismantled from the top down. From the ashes of our failures, it’s time to rebuild a new, humane system that is prepared for what lies ahead. 

In order to fundamentally shift the way we look at and manage refugees, Americans must accept accountability for this dual environmental and humanitarian crisis. Absent from the national dialogue is how, via our economic policies and our history as a major air polluter, the United States has created the circumstances which will result in millions fleeing Central America in the next 30 years. The link between environmental instability, socioeconomic crisis, widespread violence and crime in Central America was identified decades ago. Moreover, these patterns are reflected in vulnerable and impoverished areas globally. As the land is ravaged by catastrophic weather events, economic crises and clashes over remaining resources, more people make the difficult choice to leave their homes, families and communities. The Trump years demonstrated clearly that even the cruelest of deterrents will not stop desperate, displaced people from seeking safe haven and the resources necessary to live. Further, while in the United States our collective wealth may delay this level of desperation, we are not immune to the effects of climate change. We must find a way to manage environmental refugees from outside and within our borders. 

Florida provides a case study for the impact of climate change in the United States. In addition to the well-publicized destruction associated with hurricane season each year, already low-lying areas across the state are experiencing higher tides and more flooding than ever, unrelated to storm activity. Yet South Florida’s real estate market is booming, even while the land itself is being reclaimed by sea level rise. This willful obliviousness to the reality of climate change is astounding. It will also exacerbate future devastation as the many people who flock to coastal and southern regions now will increase the number who need to be relocated later. People will lose their homes and livelihoods as the sea rises and causes other problems like collapsing aquifers, failing sewage treatment plants and skyrocketing insurance premiums. Storm-weary Floridians will seek refuge by the millions, joining refugees from the Gulf Coast and eastern seaboard in a mass exodus north and west in search of clean water and cooler temperatures. Such movement will stress, if not collapse, the infrastructure of cities in the northernmost part of the United States. Barrier islands and low-lying areas will be abandoned and the mountains of trash and debris left behind will further pollute rivers and coastal waters. This same story will play out worldwide to the tune of one billion environmental refugees in the next three decades. 

If we are to successfully prepare for such a vast relocation of humanity and the resources needed to sustain the population, we must dramatically reimagine our approach to immigration and migration. Further, we must take aggressive and wide-reaching action to mitigate to the greatest extent possible the damage we have already inflicted on our habitat. The survival of our species, and countless others, relies on it. 

Refugees plant seedlings to replace trees they had cut down for shelter and firewood.

There is proof that each and every person can take action to make a difference. People in the refugee camp in Matamoros, where thousands of refugees waited in a makeshift camp due to Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy, found the resources to plant seedlings to replace the trees they had cut down for shelter and firewood. These stewards know firsthand the importance of caring for the land as well as the consequences of abdicating that responsibility. Perhaps our greatest leaders will come from those who have already been displaced, those who already are environmental refugees. In their faces we should see our future selves, in their care of the planet we should find inspiration. Make no mistake, shifting from fossil fuels to green technologies, investing in carbon sinks and establishing a humane, thoughtful approach to migration is the most self-serving act our species can engage in. The earth will survive us, however, our habitat and our children most certainly will not if we fail to act now. 


DemCast is an advocacy-based 501(c)4 nonprofit. We have made the decision to build a media site free of outside influence. There are no ads. We do not get paid for clicks. If you appreciate our content, please consider a small monthly donation.


Toby Gialluca is an attorney and activist working to leave her children a just and habitable planet.

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