Would you consider yourself a refugee if you were forced from your home and community because climate change brought increased sea levels, more intense nor’easters and hurricanes to Massachusetts? No, probably not.
But what about the 200 million people who will be displaced due to climate change by 2050? Are they refugees?
We have all heard the term “climate refugee” used by the news media but what does it really mean?
The term “climate refugee” has two big problems: It doesn’t capture the complex situations of migrants, and it depoliticizes the true causes of migration. Ultimately it fails people who have been displaced by climate change and simultaneously undermines the normative significance of the term “refugee.”
The internationally recognized definition of a refugee is “someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted."
This term applies to people who are fleeing their country because of immediate external threats, such as war, that jeopardize their safety. And contrary to popular belief, the official definition of refugee does not encompass those displaced by natural disasters, despite being an immediate external threat to health and safety.
Although a complicated emerging issue with diverse challenges, climate change is not currently classified as an immediate external threat.
Unlike most war, climate change does not force large groups of people to move during a relatively short time period.
Rather climate change is a gradual shift in local conditions, which over time contribute to regional stress, such as drought or flooding, which then prompt migration. People start migrating because droughts and floods invoke a significant loss of economic activity and income, and people no longer have a means to provide for themselves or their family.
However, the risks from droughts or floods cannot be equated to the risks people experience fleeing for safety – and their lives – from violence in conflict or war.
This nuance highlights the incongruity of using the term “refugee” to define climate change migrants – those displaced by extreme heat, drought, flooding, etc. Using the term “refugee” within the context of climate migration therefore conflates people migrating for legitimate safety concerns with those migrating for adaptation or new livelihoods, carrying protection implications for those traditionally defined as a refugee.
The term “climate refugee” further ignores the migratory distance of those people, as they often move within national borders and not internationally. By definition the term “refugee” only concerns people who are “unable or willing to return to their country.” This makes internally displaced people ineligible to the protections guaranteed to those who migrate across borders.
Defining people with the term “climate refugee” elicits a sense of urgency and crisis but does nothing to actually provide services to those people and does not guarantee international support.
Additionally, “climate refugee” creates an illusion that climate change is the driving force of migration, ultimately depoliticizing the migration and removing the responsibility from the socio-economic and political norms and establishments accountable for the migration.
Climate change alone is not the reason people decide to migrate, and therefore they are not “climate refugees”; people migrate because of political, economic and social factors such as conflict, social injustices and human rights abuses.
What climate change does do is serve as a catalyst for political, economic or social unrest. It adds stressors -- such as drought, flooding or intense heat -- that evoke or advance friction and hostility but itself is not a cause of the discordance.
Focusing on climate, when climate is not the primary driver, allows for the depoliticization of the actual causes of migration. It threatens to attenuate the responsibility placed on the states, policies and institutions that contributed to the complex political and socio-economic state of affairs.
Removing liability diminishes the pressure exerted on those migration-driving factors and hinders progressive action toward conflict resolution.
Despite widespread use of the term “climate refugee,” it is an inaccurate representation of climate-related displacement. It suggests an immediate, greater risk to life than how climate change actually manifests, and it ignores the fact that most people displaced by climate move regionally within state borders.
The term even threatens the significance of the word “refugee” for people who meet the traditional criteria of refugee status. “Climate refugee” also creates a lens of deception, allowing governments to place blame on climate change when actually the state is culpable for the issues leading to migration.
Climate displacement and migration are real. However, they exist within the context of complex political and socio-economic situations and thus require a term—and definition—that encompasses the associated nuances.
If we want to seriously confront the issue of climate migration while also protecting traditional refugees, we need to stop using “climate refugee” and use the term “climate migrant”.
Jessica Schiff is a master of science candidate in environmental health at Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health. She grew up in Middleton and is a graduate of Masconomet Regional High School.