Encyclopedic Entry

A rapid increase in climate refugees will put an economic and social strain on the regions that offer them asylum.

Photograph by Xavier Susai, MyShot

School Boats
In Bangladesh, climate-induced flooding is swallowing up much of the countrys land. The nonprofit organization Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha, which means self-reliance, is building schools on boats. The group has built more than 40 school-boats, complete with computers and libraries. Solar lamps allow students to study at night after working all day.

Sinking State
The island nation of Tuvalu has struck an agreement with New Zealand to accept its 11,600 citizens in the event that rising sea levels overtake the country. Tuvalu is made up of eight tiny coral atolls, with a total land area of just 26 square kilometers (10 square miles). The highest point in Tuvalu is only 4.5 meters (14.7 feet) above sea level.

Competition and Conflict
Climate change can enhance the competition for resourceswater, food, grazing landsand that competition can trigger conflict.
Antonio Guterres, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, 2009

Climate refugees are people who must leave their homes and communities because of the effects of climate change and global warming.

Climate change is caused by natural events, such as volcanic eruptions, as well as human activities. Climate change has happened many times since Earth was formed billions of years ago.

Global warming is the most recent period of climate change. Human activities like burning fossil fuels and cutting down forests contribute to global warming because they release greenhouse gases. Greenhouse gases trap heat in the atmosphere.

Rising temperatures associated with global warming cause glaciers and ice caps to melt. This can cause flooding and make sea levels rise. Rising temperatures also lead to droughts and desertification—the transformation of arable land to desert. Some of these effects, such as sea level rise, can put land completely underwater, making it uninhabitable. Others effects, such as drought, make it impossible for people in the region to support themselves.

Climate refugees belong to a larger group of immigrants known as environmental refugees. Environmental refugees include immigrants forced to flee because of natural disasters, such as volcanoes and tsunamis.

The International Red Cross estimates that there are more environmental refugees than political refugees fleeing from wars and other conflicts. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says 36 million people were displaced by natural disasters in 2009, the last year such a report was taken. Scientists predict this number will rise to at least 50 million by 2050. Some say it could be as high as 200 million.

Sea Level Rise

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that sea levels will rise a total of 0.18 to 0.6 meters (7 inches to 2 feet) between 1990 and 2100. Rising sea levels already cause problems in low-lying coastal areas of the world.

For instance, about half the population of Bangladesh lives less than 5 meters (16.5 feet) above sea level. In 1995, Bangladesh’s Bhola Island was half-submerged by rising sea levels, leaving 500,000 people homeless. Scientists predict Bangladesh will lose 17 percent of its land by 2050 due to flooding caused by climate change. The loss of land could lead to as many as 20 million climate refugees from Bangladesh.

The U.S. state of Louisiana loses about 65 square kilometers (25 square miles) to the sea every year. Most land is eroding near the Mississippi delta. Sea level rise puts the productive fisheries around the delta at risk as wetlands are submerged. The wetland ecosystem will be lost to more saltwater habitat, and fishermen will have to go further from shore to pursue fish. The loss of wetlands also makes damage from storms like Hurricane Katrina more likely.


Maldives
Maldives, an island nation in the Indian Ocean, is perhaps the country most threatened by sea level rise. Maldives rises only 2.4 meters (8 feet) above sea level at its highest point. Sea level rise will likely create climate refugees because of changes in both economy and habitat.

Tourism supports more than 25 percent of the Maldivian economy. As the islands slowly sink underwater, they can support fewer tourists and tourist facilities, such as hotels. Fishing is the nation’s second-largest industry.

The environment and economy of Maldives are threatened as sea levels rise and become less salty. The melting of polar ice caps increases the amount of freshwater in the ocean, as well as causing sea levels to rise. The increased amount of freshwater in the marine environment threatens the delicate ecosystem of coral reefs that surround the islands. The habitat may not be able to support as many fish, threatening the fisheries around Maldives. Other fish may not be able to adapt to the less-salty water. Without income generated from tourism or fishing, many Maldivians may be forced to migrate to seek new jobs.

Finally, sea level rise may sink all 1,200 islands of Maldives. This would force all Maldivians to find new places to live. Maldives leaders have worked with leaders in Australia, India, and Sri Lanka to plan an evacuation program should Maldives become uninhabitable.

Venice
The urban area of Venice, Italy, is also threatened by sea level rise. Venice is an ancient city built on a series of islands in a lagoon on the coast of the Adriatic Sea. The city has always been threatened by storms and storm surges. Venice’s main "streets" are actually canals and smaller waterways. As the tide comes in, entire piazzas, or town squares, are put under several centimeters of water. In the past century, flooding has become more frequent. In 1900, the city’s main piazza was underwater seven times. In 1996, it flooded 99 times.

Like Maldives, Venice depends on tourism to support its economy. As the city floods more often, fewer tourists will visit and tourism facilities will be harder to maintain. Flooding and mold will threaten popular tourist sites, such as St. Mark’s Basilica and the Doge’s Palace. Venetians may be forced to migrate as their city and their economy sink.

Many other coastal cities throughout the world are located in low-lying areas vulnerable to sea level rise: Manhattan, New York; London, England; Shanghai, China; Hamburg, Germany; Bangkok, Thailand; Jakarta, Indonesia; Mumbai, India; Manila, Philippines; and Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Drought

While rising seas threaten coastal regions, drought can create climate refugees inland. When people cannot grow crops on the land where they live, they have to move somewhere else in order to survive. For example, the Gobi Desert in China expands more than 3,600 square kilometers (1,390 square miles) every year. Farmers and merchants in the area surrounding the Gobi migrate to China’s crowded urban areas as grasslands are overtaken by desert.


Morocco, Tunisia, and Libya each lose more than 1,000 square kilometers (386 square miles) of productive land every year to desertification. These residents on the edge of the Sahara Desert may move to cities in the Maghreb, a region of northwest Africa. They may also choose to move to the more developed countries of Europe.

Residents near the Horn of Africa are especially vulnerable to drought and desertification. Most rural residents in Somalia, Ethiopia, and Eritrea engage in subsistence agriculture. Subsistence agriculture means the farmers produce enough crops for themselves, their families, and communities. They do not sell their produce on the national or international market. Many subsistence farmers depend on their crops to feed their livestock. Years of severe drought prevent crops from growing, which also prevents livestock from being raised.

Thousands of Somalis and Ethiopians, threatened by starvation and poverty, have already fled to refugee camps in Kenya. Camps that were designed to provide temporary shelter for 90,000 people are now home to twice that number.

Refugee Status

Environmental refugees are not protected by international laws. They face greater political risks than refugees who flee their homes due to conflict or political oppression. Unlike traditional refugees, climate refugees may be sent back to their devastated homeland or forced into a refugee camp.

Most climate refugees are internal migrants. Internal migration is the process of people moving elsewhere in their own country. Often, climate refugees are rural and coastal residents who are forced to migrate to urban areas. These climate refugees face numerous problems. Skills such as herding and farming are not relevant in urban areas. Rural farmers are often more self-sufficient than many urban dwellers; they may not be familiar with depending on a corporation or other people for employment.

Climate refugees who migrate outside their home countries face other difficulties. They must adjust to different laws, languages, and cultures.

Climate refugees may encounter conflict with indigenous residents. Educational and health care systems must adjust to a sudden, new population. This population may speak a different language or have different customs than the native population.

Climate change may also increase the number of traditional refugees. Antonio Guterres, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, has noted, “Climate change can enhance the competition for resources—water, food, grazing lands—and that competition can trigger conflict.”

Vocabulary

Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry

adapt

Verb

to adjust to new surroundings or a new situation.

ancient

Adjective

very old.

arable

Adjective

land able to produce crops.

atmosphere

Noun

layers of gases surrounding a planet or other celestial body.

Encyclopedic Entry: atmosphere

basilica

Noun

large and important medieval Christian church.

canal

Noun

artificial waterway.

climate change

Noun

gradual changes in all the interconnected weather elements on our planet.

Encyclopedic Entry: climate change

climate refugee

Noun

person forced to leave his or her home and community because of climate change.

Encyclopedic Entry: climate refugee

coast

Noun

edge of land along the sea or other large body of water.

Encyclopedic Entry: coast

coral reef

Noun

rocky ocean features made up of millions of coral skeletons.

corporation

Noun

business made up of a group of stockholders, or people who own interest in the business.

crop

Noun

agricultural produce.

Encyclopedic Entry: crop

culture

Noun

learned behavior of people, including their languages, belief systems, social structures, institutions, and material goods.

custom

Noun

a way of doing things that has been handed down from one generation to the next.

delicate

Adjective

fragile or easily damaged.

delta

Noun

the flat, low-lying plain that sometimes forms at the mouth of a river from deposits of sediments.

Encyclopedic Entry: delta

desert

Noun

area of land that receives no more than 25 centimeters (10 inches) of precipitation a year.

Encyclopedic Entry: desert

desertification

Noun

the spread of desert conditions in arid regions, usually caused by human activity.

devastate

Verb

to destroy.

displace

Verb

to remove or force to evacuate.

doge

Noun

(700-1797) title of the elected political leader of the republic of Venice.

drought

Noun

period of greatly reduced precipitation.

Encyclopedic Entry: drought

dwell

Verb

to live in a certain place.

economy

Noun

system of production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services.

ecosystem

Noun

community and interactions of living and nonliving things in an area.

Encyclopedic Entry: ecosystem

employment

Noun

job or work.

engage

Verb

to interact with.

enhance

Verb

to add to or increase in worth.

environmental refugee

Noun

person who has been forced to flee his home and community due to changes in the environment, such as drought.

eruption

Noun

release of material from an opening in the Earth's crust.

estimate

Verb

to guess based on knowledge of the situation or object.

evacuation

Noun

removal of people, organisms, or objects from an endangered area.

expand

Verb

to grow.

familiar

Adjective

well-known.

farmer

Noun

person who cultivates land and raises crops.

farming

Noun

the art, science, and business of cultivating the land for growing crops.

fishery

Noun

industry or occupation of harvesting fish, either in the wild or through aquaculture.

forest

Noun

ecosystem filled with trees and underbrush.

fossil fuel

Noun

coal, oil, or natural gas. Fossil fuels formed from the remains of ancient plants and animals.

frequent

Adjective

often.

freshwater

Noun

water that is not salty.

generate

Verb

to create or begin.

glacier

Noun

mass of ice that moves slowly over land.

Encyclopedic Entry: glacier

global warming

Noun

increase in the average temperature of the Earth's air and oceans.

Encyclopedic Entry: global warming

grassland

Noun

ecosystem with large, flat areas of grasses.

greenhouse gas

Noun

gas in the atmosphere, such as carbon dioxide and ozone, that absorbs solar heat reflected by the surface of the Earth, warming the atmosphere.

habitat

Noun

environment where an organism lives throughout the year or for shorter periods of time.

Encyclopedic Entry: habitat

health care

Noun

system for addressing the physical health of a population.

herding

Noun

practice of caring for roaming groups of livestock over a large area.

Encyclopedic Entry: herding

Horn of Africa

Noun

large peninsula in northeast Africa, including the countries of Somalia, Djibouti, Eritrea, and Ethiopia. Also called the Somali Peninsula.

Hurricane Katrina

Noun

2005 storm that was one of the deadliest in U.S. history.

ice cap

Noun

area of fewer than 50,000 square kilometers (19,000 square miles) covered by ice.

Encyclopedic Entry: ice cap

immigrant

Noun

person who moves to a new country or region.

income

Noun

wages, salary, or amount of money earned.

industry

Noun

activity that produces goods and services.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)

Noun

group of scientists who review the most up-to-date research available related to global warming and climate change.

internal migration

Noun

the movement of people from one area in a country or nation to another.

island

Noun

body of land surrounded by water.

Encyclopedic Entry: island

lagoon

Noun

shallow body of water that may have an opening to a larger body of water, but is also protected from it by a sandbar or coral reef.

Encyclopedic Entry: lagoon

livestock

noun, plural noun

animals raised for sale and profit.

Maghreb

Noun

region in North Africa made of five countries: Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Mauritania.

maintain

Verb

to continue.

marine

Adjective

having to do with the ocean.

market

Noun

central place for the sale of goods.

merchant

Noun

person who sells goods and services.

migrate

Verb

to move from one place or activity to another.

natural disaster

Noun

an event occurring naturally that has large-scale effects on the environment and people, such as a volcano, earthquake, or hurricane.

piazza

Noun

Italian town square.

polar

Adjective

having to do with the North and/or South Pole.

political oppression

Noun

preventing people from expressing their political opinion or participating in political life.

poverty

Noun

status of having very little money or material goods.

predict

Verb

to know the outcome of a situation in advance.

produce

Noun

agricultural products such as vegetables and fruits.

Red Cross

Noun

international organization focused on humanitarian aid and disaster relief. Formally called the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.

refugee

Noun

person who flees their home, usually due to natural disaster or political upheaval.

refugee camp

Noun

temporary shelters built for immigrants who have fled their homes due to environmental or social conflict.

relevant

Adjective

directly having to do with something or someone.

resource

Noun

available supply of materials, goods, or services. Resources can be natural or human.

rural

Adjective

having to do with country life, or areas with few residents.

sea level rise

Noun

increase in the average reach of the ocean. The current sea level rise is 1.8 millimeters (.07 inch) per year.

self-sufficient

Adjective

able to support all of one's basic needs without assistance.

severe

Adjective

harsh.

site

Noun

specific place where something is located.

starvation

Noun

dying from lack of food.

storm

Noun

severe weather indicating a disturbed state of the atmosphere resulting from uplifted air.

storm surge

Noun

abnormal rise in sea level accompanying a hurricane or other intense storm. Also called a storm tide.

Encyclopedic Entry: storm surge

submerge

Verb

to put underwater.

subsistence agriculture

Noun

type of agriculture in which farmers grow crops or raise livestock for personal consumption, not sale.

temperature

Noun

degree of hotness or coldness measured by a thermometer with a numerical scale.

Encyclopedic Entry: temperature

temporary

Adjective

not lasting or permanent.

tide

Noun

rise and fall of the ocean's waters, caused by the gravitational pull of the moon and sun.

Encyclopedic Entry: tide

tourism

Noun

the industry (including food, hotels, and entertainment) of traveling for pleasure.

tsunami

Noun

ocean waves triggered by an earthquake, volcano, or other movement of the ocean floor.

uninhabitable

Adjective

not capable of being lived in, for social, hygienic, or economic reasons.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)

Noun

United Nations agency whose goal is to ensure that everyone can exercise the right to seek asylum and find safe refuge in another country, with the option to return home voluntarily, integrate locally, or to resettle in a third country.

urban area

Noun

developed, densely populated area where most inhabitants have nonagricultural jobs.

Encyclopedic Entry: urban area

urban center

Noun

densely populated area, usually a city and its surrounding suburbs.

volcano

Noun

an opening in the Earth's crust, through which lava, ash, and gases erupt, and also the cone built by eruptions.

vulnerable

Adjective

capable of being hurt.

waterway

Noun

body of water that serves as a route for transportation.

wetland

Noun

area of land covered by shallow water or saturated by water.

Encyclopedic Entry: wetland

Credits

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Writer

Melissa McDaniel
Erin Sprout
Diane Boudreau
Andrew Turgeon

Illustrator

Tim Gunther, Illustrator
Mary Crooks, National Geographic Society

Editor

Jeannie Evers
Kara West

Educator Reviewer

Nancy Wynne

Producer

Caryl-Sue, National Geographic Society

Sources

Dunn, Margery G. (Editor). (1989, 1993). "Exploring Your World: The Adventure of Geography." Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society.

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