Are climate refugees the biggest threat to achieving social equality?

21 July, 2021

SDG 10 aims for global socio-economic equality determined through prosperity regardless of gender, race, religion or economic status. Considering the giant difference in countries with respect to their position on the Maslow chart, Covid-19 has accelerated the inequalities and changed priorities of people and governments, making the idea of equality a mere utopian thought.


A 2019 report by Human Development Index highlighted the need to address inequality and climate crisis together owing to the growing disparities brought by climate change. The report says, “Just as the gap in basic living standards is narrowing, with an unprecedented number of people in the world escaping poverty, hunger and disease, the abilities people will need to compete in the immediate future have evolved. Opportunities once considered luxuries [like education] that are now considered critical to compete and belong, particularly in a knowledge economy, where an increasing number of young people are educated, connected and stuck with no ladder of choices to move up. At the same time, climate change, gender inequality and violent conflict continue to drive and entrench basic and new inequalities alike.”


Here are a few statistics that highlight how climate change is deepening these inequalities.


  1. Had it not been for climate change, global income inequalities could be 25 per cent less than they are currently.
  2. The HDI report highlights a study that notes that in the last two decades, global warming has made tropical countries at least 5 per cent poorer than they otherwise would be.
  3. The negative impacts of climate change extend to health too—between 2030 and 2050 climate change is expected to cause some 250,000 additional deaths a year from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress.
  4. An estimate ranges that between 150 to 200 million people, called climate refugees, are at risk of being forced to leave their homes by 2050 because of desertification, rising sea levels and extreme weather conditions.


The Climate Refugee Crisis

I feel that the greatest threat to reducing inequalities is the climate refugee crisis. As per the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), a report from April 2021 estimated that the number of people displaced by climate change-related disasters since 2010 has risen to 21.5 million.


At the pinnacle of climate shocks, the most vulnerable sections of the society—women, farmers, marginalised sections, and the poor in the developing world are the ones to face the heaviest burden of climate change.


In the past years, the regularity of floods, droughts, hurricanes, and heatwaves have increased drastically. Almost 700 million people live in low-lying coastal zones vulnerable to sea-level rise and the consequences that follow. Almost a decade ago, an increment of just a few inches of sea level forced Kiribati to become the first country to seek land elsewhere for their climate refugees. Low lying countries like Seychelles, Maldives and Bangladesh among others, lie in fear of the same. In Bangladesh, 17 per cent of the country is estimated to go underwater by 2050, displacing over 20 million people. Closer to home, this article in The Chronicle, shows the areas most at risk here in the North East of England, from the Farne Islands to the Metrocentre.


In an ideal world, a healthier natural environment, more resilient societies, balanced ecosystems maintain a system of disease control. In the case of mass migrations, the balance would go haywire.


There are two bodies under the climate migration crisis—migrants who have the awareness, resources, and financial options to relocate, and refugees who are forced to move and bear the situation more harshly. I came across an interesting read on The Guardian titled “The climate crisis will create two classes: those who can flee, and those who cannot”.


The ones with the option to seek a better haven for themselves devoid of harsh weather, have a general leaning towards migrating to first-world nations that are high in resources and opportunities. In the event this movement becomes overwhelming, the system that’s already taxed with resource and land utility scarcity and socio-economic opportunities face further stress. Furthermore, the developed nations already have the highest amount of emissions and that is further to increase exponentially if the world sees a mass migration wave.


On the other hand, a large bunch of people in the poor agriculture-dependent nations might not necessarily have the resources to flee, migration or relocate. Here harsher climates and natural disasters push the poverty status and increase global inequalities. The climate refugee situation thus becomes a crisis because they heighten the inequality levels amongst nations.


Why should you care?

Climate change has resulted in huge displacement recently and the numbers are to significantly grow. Not only does it affect a specific group in the developing nations, but the developed nations areno stranger to the climate movement. In 2013, residents of Fairbourne, Gwynedd were told they’d have to migrate by 2054 in lieu of the rising sea levels.


Legal and humanitarian jurisdictions that create policies to safeguard migrants and refugees are also overwhelmed. So the lack of legislation for climate refugees makes the steep towards global inequalities sharper. No guarantees to personal security, and inequalities in income and power that such migrations bring, makes it clear that the crisis may not be fixable by small measures in the near future.

How do we prevent this?

The change goes both ways. Climate action can reduce inequalities and reducing inequalities can bring about climate action.  As I said in my last blog, the imminent solution to reach the sustainable development goals is to create a society backed by a deflationary asset, one that rewards savers and punishes consumers.


Reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by large organisations to prevent worsening of climate change, investments in sustainable infrastructure that can withstand such climate events, rehabilitation of landscapes, and ecosystems and restructuring and rebuilding social policies are the need of the hour. At a national level, improvement in the status of the lower-income groups, creation of social and financial safety nets and the introduction of less commercial intensive activities are the solution to the impending crisis.

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