A recent article in the Huffington Post reports on last week’s annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the world’s largest general scientific society. Experts at the meeting warned that, “In 2020, the UN has projected that we will have 50 million environmental refugees.”
“When people are not living in sustainable conditions, they migrate,” stated University of California, Los Angeles professor Cristina Tirado at the AAAS meeting. She and other speakers outlined how climate change is impacting both food security and food safety. Southern Europe is already seeing a sharp increase in what has long been a slow but steady flow of migrants from Africa.
Of course, asylum is not available to people who fear return to their country on account of environmental disaster. In the U.S., we have provided Temporary Protected Status (“TPS”) to people from certain countries that have faced natural disasters. Most recently, after the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Haitians in the United States were granted TPS so that they could remain in the United States until conditions improve.
If predictions are accurate, and more people migrate to escape the impact of global warming, the current system of asylum, refugee resettlement, and TPS may prove inadequate. Long term environmental change may make it necessary for millions of people to migrate, and impossible for them ever to return home. If the migrations predicted at the AAAS meeting actually materialize, the U.S. and other developed countries–which are presumably more able to deal with the effects of climate change–will need to re-think how they deal with such large numbers of refugees.
In this case, it seems to me that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The question is: Do our governments have the political will to do something about the problem? Let’s hope so.