Protecting climate refugees: The case for a global protocol

In August 2006, the government of the Maldives organized a meeting of representatives of governments, environmental and humanitarian organizations, and United Nations agencies on an issue that had until then been largely outside the climate policy debate: the protection and resettlement of “climate refugees.”1 For a small island nation like the Maldives, located only few meters above sea level, this question is surely at the heart of its national security, if not national survival. Such low-lying island nations are likely to be the first to suffer from global climate change, and many atolls may disappear or become uninhabitable over the course of the century. Yet climate-related migration could also evolve into a larger, global crisis far beyond threats to a few island nations. According to some estimates, more than 200 million people might have to give up their homes due to climate change by 2050.2 Such estimates have a large margin of error3 and depend on underlying assumptions about population growth, economic development, temperature increase, or the degree and timing of climate change impacts such as sea-level rise. And yet most scenarios agree on a general trend: in this century, global warming may force millions of people—mainly in Asia and Africa—to leave their homes and migrate to other places.

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