November 24, 2018

Help students understand the phrase “climate refugee”

Posted by Laura Guertin

I have my students seek out and utilize current news articles relating to the topics we cover in my Earth science courses. Recently, I’ve seen an increase and inconsistent use of the phrase “climate refugee” in student work. I can’t entirely fault the students – there is a growing discussion of climate refugees in sources ranging from social media to news reports on the recent Camp Hill fire in California. I think it is worth a few minutes of our class time to review this term with students, and have them understand what it does and does not mean.


The 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio had some moments of celebration and moments of disappointment. One competitor combined his feelings of joy and defeat for all to see. (*you may need to click in the player for it to open in YouTube to view)

Why did weightlifter David Katoatau dance when he failed to qualify? It was to call attention to his Pacific island nation and the threat climate change poses: “Most people don’t know where Kiribati is. I want people to know more about us so I use weightlifting, and my dancing, to show the world. I wrote an open letter to the world last year to tell people about all the homes lost to rising sea levels. I don’t know how many years it will be before it sinks.” (see Reuters article) Katoatau continues in his letter for international support, “I beg the countries of the world to see what is happening to Kiribati. The simple truth is that we do not have the resources to save ourselves. We will be the first to go.”

And the word is spreading about Kiribati, whether it be from Ioane Teitiota‘s failed legal attempt at becoming Kiribati/the world’s first individual designated as a climate refugee, to the CBS News On Assignment segment titled “Climate Refugees: Nations under threat“, focusing on Kiribati’s situation with sea level.

NPR posed the question in 2011 – could people from Kiribati, and others like them who have to move because of severe weather, drought, or coastal erosion, be considered “climate change refugees?”


The United States

The stories of climate refugees are also being reported for the United States. Articles are videos are appearing all over the internet, from America’s First Climate Change Refugees (SBS Dateline, 2017) to This Tiny Alaska Town Is Leading the Way on Climate Change (Global Citizen, 2017) to Tangier Island: Among the First U.S. Climate Refugees? (The Atlantic, 2018) – and did I mention the group many are calling the first American climate refugees, the community offered federal funding to relocate from Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana? (see WIRED post and NYT article)


Definition – does one exist?

Let’s take one step back – how exactly do we define “climate refugee”? National Geographic Society defines “climate refugees” as “people who must leave their homes and communities because of the effects of climate change and global warming” (NGS website). This definition is echoed through other sources and even into the titles of books. For example, María Cristina García (Cornell Univ.) has a book project on the topic, Climate Refugees: The Environmental Origins of Refugee Migrations. and Behrman and Kent (2018) published Climate Refugees: Beyond the Legal Impasse? (see description on Oxford Research Group site).

Despite the growing use of the phrase “climate refugee”, there remains no international agreement on its definition and who should qualify as a climate refugee. I’ll repeat: neither the United Nations or any international agency that works with refugees or climate change recognizes any particular definition. Part of the challenge is the use of the term “refugee”. The 1951 Refugee Convention defines very clear criteria that people must be fleeing in order to gain refugee status, and the impacts of climate change are currently not on that list. A 2018 article in The Economist reports that experts worry adding climate refugees to international law would reduce protections for existing refugees (immigration attorneys expressed the same concern to PRI in 2017).

If not the phrase “climate refugee”, what, then? UN Dispatch documents the proposed phrase “environmental migrant” from the early 2000’s, which still did not receive wide adoption and use (although it does have a Wikipedia page). “Climigration” has also been proposed for people that have had to move because of climate change (see Schott’s Vocab NYT column)


Help students understand…

There is no doubt that the phrase “climate refugee” will continue to see increased usage, whether as an informal mention or intentional reference. NPR reported again in 2018 on climate refugees, reporting that “since 2008, an average of 24 million people have been displaced by catastrophic weather disasters each year. And as climate change worsens storms and droughts, climate scientists and migration experts expect that number to rise.” We can help our students by breaking down this phrase and warn them to be critical of its usage.