Climate Refugees

Elizabeth Borneman


When we think of the word refugees, more than a few images come to mind. Right now the Syrian refugee crisis is on the forefront of the world’s news, but refugees from other, older conflicts continue to impact our understanding of forced migration.

Another kind of refugee situation is growing, one that has nothing to do with politics or wars. This situation displaces people almost indiscriminately, and without regard to factors other than geographic circumstance. This is climate change, and the people who are displaced by rising tides and devastating weather changes are climate refugees.

No one wants to leave the place they’ve called home for years, maybe even generations. But what if that place is underwater, or very nearly so? Environmental migrants, or climate refugees, are people who are forced to leave their home region due to sudden or long-term changes in their local environment.[1] These changes make it impossible or too expensive to continue living and working in that place. Climate refugees can be created by manmade and natural climate changes resulting in monsoons, droughts, sea level rise, desertification, and other disruptions to the standard local climate.

The creation of climate refugees in the United States is unfortunately nothing new. During the Great Depression, residents of the Midwest packed up their belongings and left home searching for better opportunities when their fields turned to dust.[2] Without a way to grow crops or feed themselves or their families, residents of farming and ranching communities had no way to make a living. The Dust Bowl displaced approximately 2.5 million people by 1940, the majority of whom were from the states located on the Great Plains. [2] A combination of above average winds, drought, and poor dryland farming methods caused the topsoil in the Great Plains to blow away, leaving formers without the ability to grow the food they needed for their animals and families.

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A more modern day example of climate refugees is in Louisiana. Louisiana has already lost an area the size of Delaware on the coastline as the sea has risen, bringing low lying islands and coastal cities into the water. [1] Residents of Isle de Jean Charles are currently facing the difficult task of giving up their sinking homes, as floodwaters threaten to cut off their connection to the rest of the state. The federal government has granted the residents of the island climate refugee status and is funding potential relocation of the community.

The government and the residents of the small island community have not yet agreed on a place to resettle, nor do some people want to leave. For many residents the island is their cultural heritage, one of the last physical attachments they have to their Native American traditions. Leaving, to some, means giving up.

Communities in 13 states in America are the subject of federal grant money that is to be used to relocate residents to drier, higher areas. [1] Some communities can be saved by investing in stronger levees, dams, and drainage systems, but others are too far gone to continue pouring money into. The organizations within the federal government and those working with potential climate refugees hope that a few success stories could help build precedent for vulnerable communities around the world.

National Geographic Magazine has estimated there to be about 20 million environmental refugees around the world, and the United Nations has pushed for a recognition of this subset of refugees. [3] Asia has seen about 42 million people displaced by floods, droughts, extreme monsoon seasons, tsunamis, and more; and this was just in 2010 and 2011. [3] In some of these case conditions improved and residents were able to return to rebuild their homes, but in the case of sea level rise some communities have been lost forever.

Map showing the regions where natural disasters will occur due to climate change (global warming). The schematic was based on the Environmentally Induced Migration map from GRID Arenal.
Map showing the regions where natural disasters will occur due to climate change (global warming). The map was based on the Environmentally Induced Migration map (since deleted) from GRID Arenal. Map: KVDP, Wikimedia Commons, July 2011.

Asian nations including Indonesia that will experience a climate refugee crisis because of rising sea levels have contemplated changing their national budgets to account for the necessary movement of their populations because of climate change. Island atolls like Kiribati, built on the tops of subterranean volcanoes and growing coral reefs, are extremely at risk from rising tides and a higher sea level that threatens the very existence of the country. As sea water rises the amount of land that can be devoted to agriculture dwindles. Salt water leeches into freshwater sources, and native plants begin to die out. The residents of Karibati have been left with a choice- leave and resettle elsewhere, or stay and risk the chance of seeing their homes reclaimed by the waves. [4]

As climate change around the world continues to change how humans live, the idea of climate refugees becomes that much more applicable. Coastal communities are at a high risk of damage from erosion because of stronger and more frequent storms, higher tides, and a higher sea level. Other communities located inland could experience more extreme flooding, droughts, or food shortages that could force residents to pack up and leave.

Climate refugees are becoming more recognized on international and legal stages as this issue becomes more pressing. More and more climate refugees could be forced to leave their homes as climate change impacts the environment and weather around us. Those who are displaced by climate change will have to find new places to settle, within their countries or outside of them, and find ways to use the skills they already have to make their new location home.


[1] For more information on climate refugees in the United States, see: Davenport, Coral, and Robertson, Campbell. Resettling the First American Climate Refugees, May 3, 2016.

[2] For more information on the Dust Bowl, see: Public Broadcast Corporation. Mass Exodus from the Plains

[3] For more information about environmental migrants and climate refugees, see: Environmental Migrant. Wikipedia.

[4] For more information about Karibati, see: Weiss, Kenneth R. Foreign Policy. The Making of a Climate Refugee, January 28, 2015.  

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About the author
Elizabeth Borneman
My name is Elizabeth Borneman and I am a freelance writer, reader, and coffee drinker. I live on a small island in Alaska, which gives me plenty of time to fish, hike, kayak, and be inspired by nature. I enjoy writing about the natural world and find lots of ways to flex my creative muscles on the beach, in the forest, or down at the local coffee shop.