Australia bracing for wave of ‘climate refugees’

US defence expert warns people fleeing low-lying Pacific islands a precursor to ‘climate-exacerbated water insecurities’ that could trigger wider conflict

Sydney: Australia could be on the front line of a new wave of “climate refugees” displaced by extreme weather events, droughts and rising seas, a US expert on the national security impacts of climate change has warned.

Sherri Goodman, a former US deputy undersecretary of defence, argues the impact of climate change — rising seas, extreme weather, prolonged droughts — will be a “threat multiplier” for security challenges, and could be the spark that ignites conflict and drives new waves of mass forced migration. The Asia-Pacific region was acutely vulnerable, she said.

“You may be on the front lines here in Australia for climate refugees,” she told the Guardian in Sydney. “The first wave will be those who have to flee the low-lying Pacific islands, because many of them will be uninhabitable, even in our lifetimes. But you’re also in ‘disaster alley’ here in the Asia-Pacific region and while there have begun to be efforts to reduce risks of disasters, I’m concerned that we’re not acting as quickly as we should to protect our societies from those risks, which is going to mean more migration.”

Syrian civil war

Goodman cited the example of the ongoing civil war in Syria, which has produced more than five million refugees over six years of fighting. But the political conflict in Syria was exacerbated by a long-running drought which drove people into food insecurity, poverty and rapid, unsustainable urbanisation. “From 2006 to 2010, 60 per cent of Syria had its worst long-term drought and crop failures since civilisation began,” Goodman says. “About 800,000 people in rural areas lost their livelihood by 2009. Three million people were driven into extreme poverty, and 1.5 million migrated to cities. Those conditions enable terrorists like Daesh or Boko Haram in parts of Nigeria or Al Qaida in Iraq to rise and take advantage of desperate people in desperate circumstances.”

Goodman is careful not to posit climate change as the sole cause of future conflicts, but argues it will be a contributory, compounding factor. “Climate is a threat multiplier because it aggravates others tensions and conflicts that already exist. Climate-exacerbated water insecurities could eventually become a tipping [point] to wider conflict or instability in the region. We see this now playing out in various ways around the world, but particularly here in the Asia-Pacific region.”

Regionally, Goodman sees the example of Pakistan and India, where historical enmity, long-running religious, political and cultural fractures, and territorial disputes over Kashmir, could be reignited by conflict over water or other resources. Low-lying Bangladesh, the eighth-most populous country in the world with more than 160 million people, has been identified as being extremely vulnerable to climate change, on some measures the most vulnerable in the world.

Bangladesh at risk

“Another extreme weather event, combined with sea-level rise and storm surge, could send upwards up 10 million people or more along that low-lying coastline in Bangladesh fleeing towards higher ground, which is towards India, which is building a massive wall to keep Bangladeshis out.

“I think that could create consequences for which we’re currently unprepared. India shows no signs of wanting or being able to absorb those numbers of refugees. And then where do they flee? These are mostly people who can’t afford to get on a cruise ship and leave. And if they can’t flee by land into India does that mean they, there’s either a massive loss of life or head off in rickety boats, where they might lose their lives at sea.”

In 2008, the then president of the Maldives, Mohammad Nasheed, speculated about buying land in Australia in order to house his country’s population when the archipelago nation was consumed by the rising Indian Ocean.

Under the global standard for refugee protection, the 1951 refugee convention, there is no such thing as a “climate change refugee”. The refugee convention, written in the aftermath of the massive displacement caused by the Second World War, only recognises refugees displaced from their home countries, and suffering a “well-founded fear of persecution “on the grounds of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.”

Some regional treaties — such as Latin America’s Cartagena declaration — have a broader definition, recognising as refugees people displaced by “circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order”, which is taken to include natural disasters and food insecurity.

Goodman argues national governments, and supranational organisations, will need to redraw, or add to, the current global protection framework. “We do need to rethink the governance for refugees better to reflect the types of refugees we face today. Current governance structures are just inadequate for the modern era.”

Governments and militaries around the world are becoming increasingly cognisant of the national security threat posed by climate change. In his confirmation hearing in January, the US’s new secretary of defence, James Mattis, said climate change posed a current security threat to America. “Climate change is impacting stability in areas of the world where our troops are operating today. It is appropriate for the combatant commands to incorporate drivers of instability that impact the security environment in their areas into their planning.” In 2015, Australia’s Climate Council released a report, co-authored by the former chief of the Australian defence force, Chris Barrie, that argued climate change “poses a significant and growing threat to human and societal well-being, threatening food, water, health and national security”.

Focus of army

In 2016, the army chief, Angus Campbell, made climate security a focus of the annual chief of army’s exercise. He said climate change was “immediately relevant” for militaries and “the scale of climate change problems, their unpredictability, and the level of support required from land forces are key issues for us to better understand”.

— Guardian News & Media Ltd