Climate refugees are people who have been forced to move due to changes in the natural environment that make the place where they live uninhabitable. Growing concerns about global warming in recent years have led to a corresponding fear that climate change will have a devastating effect on human population patterns. Will higher temperatures or changes in average rainfall make certain towns or regions unlivable? What will happen to residents of drought-prone countries who can no longer grow food or get access to drinkable water?
The issue of climate refugees is especially pressing in areas where the natural geography is being altered by changes in average temperature or sea level. In the Maldives, for example, there is a very real danger that rising sea water -- caused by the melting of the polar ice caps -- will submerge the island nation [source: Vidal]. In Alaska, the melting of the permafrost layer near the coastline has caused severe erosion and flooding; more than 30 villages have been recommended for relocation [source: GAO].
The Environmental Justice Foundation estimates that more than 25 million people have already been displaced by climate-related changes or natural disasters, and that number could rise to 150 million by 2050 [source: Vidal]. However, such predictions are extremely difficult to verify. In 2005, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) predicted that up to 50 million people could become environmental refugees by 2010. But the expected wave of migrants never materialized, and the U.N. has since backed off from that forecast. In fact, some areas that were highlighted as potential evacuation zones, such as Bangladesh and the Western Sahara, have actually seen their population rise [source: Bojanski].
When discussing the effects of climate changes on a population, it's important to remember that most refugees are not driven from their homeland forever and forced to live in makeshift camps for years. Most migrations are temporary, involving a move to a nearby town with better resources. People move away from their homes to escape flooding or the destruction caused by a hurricane, but once the waters have receded, they return and rebuild [source: Vidal].
While the plight of climate refugees may seem to be linked to global warming, environmental changes have been causing human migrations for thousands of years. In that sense, there have always been and always will be climate refugees. But if the average number of refugees spikes dramatically in the coming years, that may be further proof of global warming's very real dangers.
Heat waves not only make it seem difficult to function, they can be deadly as well. This man tried to cool himself with a water bottle during a 2008 heat wave in New York City. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Climate refugees leave their homes for a combination of climatic, sociological and economic reasons, including deforestation, drought, food shortage, land degradation, rising sea levels, flooding, intensified storm activity, earthquakes and volcanoes. Human projects, such as the construction of dams and roads, are also factors in the climate refugee phenomenon. In the future, as global climate change begins to have more pronounced effects, people living in Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Small Island States are considered the most likely to become climate refugees.
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