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Is the world prepared for climate refugees?

global warming | 03.11.2017

Senior US military experts say the effects of climate change could cause a migration wave of 20 million climate refugees over the next 20 years. But climate risk insurance schemes could prevent it.

Days before the climate change summit in Bonn, a new report warns that failure to stop climate change will force tens of millions of people from their homes.

The report from the Environmental Justice Foundation, based on interviews with senior US military and security experts, concludes that climate change will create far more refugees than have fled the Syrian civil war.

The EJF is calling on the delegates in Bonn to create a global climate risk insurance framework to protect climate refugees.

"In our rapidly changing world, climate change — and its potential to trigger both violent conflict and mass migration — needs to be considered as urgent priority," says Steve Trent, executive director of EJF.

The report says there will be far more climate refugees than there have been Syrian refugees

Threat multiplier

The report highlights the situation in the Middle East and Africa, including the worst drought to hit Syria in 900 years. It caused farmers to lose their livestock and livelihoods, which were desperately needed in the context of the war. The report notes that 1 million Syrians were already on the move because of the drought before a single gunshot was fired in the conflict.

The report says such events will spread to other parts of the world. And the hurricanes that have affected the United States this year show richer nations are not immune to the effects of climate change.

The report features interviews with military leaders who say global refugee numbers are set to rise as political, social and economic tensions collide with worsening climate change impacts.

"What we are talking about here is an existential threat to our civilisation in the longer term," US Military Corps Brigadier General Stephen A. Cheney told EJF. "In the short term, it carries all sorts of risks as well and it requires a human response on a scale that has never been achieved before."

"If Europe thinks they have a problem with migration today, wait 20 years and see what happens when climate change drives people out of Africa — the Sahel especially."

A separate report released this week by Oxfam details some of the displacement that has already happened because of extreme weather events. It found that between 2008 and 2016 an average of 21.8 million people per year were newly internally displaced by sudden-onset extreme weather disasters.

Such instances include the destruction wrought by Cyclone Pape in Vanuatu in 2015, and Cyclone Winston, which displaced more than 55,000 people in Fiji in 2016. Fiji, which is hosting this year's climate summit in Bonn, lost around a fifth of its GDP as a result of the storm.

Worsening hurricanes in the Atlantic could drive increased climate migration

Climate risk insurance

Insurance against climate change-related weather events already exists. In 2015 at a summit in Elmau, Germany, the G7 group of wealthy countries set up an initiative on climate risk insurance for vulnerable areas of the world, covering around 400 million people. The objective is to stimulate the creation of effective climate risk insurance markets that could function on their own.

InsuResilience, an initiative of the German development agency GIZ, based in Bonn, is carrying out the G7's plan. It is running programs to establish climate risk insurance markets across the world.

The insurance would help people rebuild after climate-change realted weather events that result in loss of life, livelihood and assets. The goal is to make sure those people stay put and do not become climate refugees. Rapid emergency assistance and reconstruction is provided by the schemes.

Germany wants to push for global climate risk insurance programs at the Bonn summit

Opportunities in Bonn

The German government has been a leader in pushing for these programs. Last year the German Development Ministry invested around €2.8 billion in international climate protection and adaptation.

A spokesperson for the ministry told DW that during the Bonn climate summit, Germany will push for a global partnership for climate risk insurance.

"Increasingly, climate change will also influence flight movements," said Gerd Müller, Germany's minister for economic cooperation and development. "Because where grass can no longer grow ... or where the rising sea level has flooded coastal areas, people will have to find a new home."

Although the COP23 summit is not being held in Fiji (the Fijian government is presiding over the meeting, which is being held in Bonn for logistical reasons), the country intends to leave its mark on this year's summit by stoking the idea of climate risk insurance.

The new testimonials from military experts may convince other delegations that the time has come to establish more such schemes.

Solomon Islanders face rising sea levels
Life on the water

At high tide, Lau Lagoon's manmade islands barely rise above the waterline. During king tides and
 strong winds, which are becoming increasingly frequent, some islands are now completely submerged.

Solomon Islanders face rising sea levels
People of the sea

According to oral history, and "wane i asi," or people of the sea, have been living on manmade islands in Lau Lagoon for 18 generations. They are said to have come here to be closer to the sea that provides them with a bountiful supply of fish, and respite from mainland's mosquitoes.

Solomon Islanders face rising sea levels
The only way is up

As the sea level rises, more and more of the lagoon's residents are building their homes on stilits for a few extra feet of grace.

Solomon Islanders face rising sea levels
Water babes

Children are raised to feel at home with the ocean lapping at their feet. The only school is on the mainland, so they're used to making daily the journey back and forth across the lagoon.

Solomon Islanders face rising sea levels
Born sailors

Navigating between the islands and the mainland in tiny dugout canoes with plastic sails is a skill gained early in life and quickly becomes second nature.

Solomon Islanders face rising sea levels
Stormy weather

Living on the lagoon means being completely exposed to tropical storms. And this one came during what was traditionally the dry season. Lau Lagoon islanders are being forced to contend with increasingly unpredictable weather.

Solomon Islanders face rising sea levels
Times of change

John Kaia, 52, is chief of the Aenabaolo tribe on the island of Tauba1. He says that over his lifetime he has seen dramatic changes to the climate - and his people's way of life.

Solomon Islanders face rising sea levels
Swept away

Homes lie ruined in the wake of a large wave event. Here, the community decided to not rebuild - the destruction now comes too frequently and on too great a scale to make it worth while.

Solomon Islanders face rising sea levels
Fight against time

Living with rising sea levels is an uphill struggle. Essential structures such as this outhouse, only accessible by bridge, require constant maintenance.

Solomon Islanders face rising sea levels
Abandoned to the waves

The struggle to maintain this outhouse has long since been abandoned. What was once a part of a family home is now an occasional perch for seabirds.

Solomon Islanders face rising sea levels
New neighbors

Many of Lau Lagoon's people of the sea are tying to relocate to the mainland of Malaita. But they are not always welcome. Land disputes mean construction is halted by court order - as with this church.

Solomon Islanders face rising sea levels
Fresh start

While some wane e asi struggle for space on the mainland, others are unable to find land there at all, and are building new islands in the lagoon, like this one - still very much a work in progress.

Solomon Islanders face rising sea levels
Keeping the faith

Religion plays a central role in daily life in Solomon Islands. Prayer and devotional rituals provide solace in trying times. Many have also relied on the church to help them relocate, as state programs fail to get off the ground.

Solomon Islanders face rising sea levels
Saying goodbye

As Lau Lagoon's islands are abadoned, a way of life that has existed in harmony with nature for generations may be lost forever because of the damage industrialized nations have inflicted on our shared planet.

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Dave Keating