Updated: Dec 9, 2021
Extreme weather events such as floods, droughts, and extreme heat caused by climate change are increasingly becoming a part of day-to-day life for many people across the world, Australia included. It’s predicted that in the near future we may see an exponential rise in environmental migration. It’s not inconceivable that Australia will be welcoming, not just economic and conflict fleeing migrants, but also a new wave of “climate refugees”. UN forecasts indicate that there could be anything between 25 million and 1 billion environmental migrants by 2050!
Australia is already a country of migrants. Only 3.3% of Australia’s current population identifies as Aboriginal, and over one third of us weren’t even born here. Over the last two centuries many migrants have moved to the ‘lucky country’ for economic and lifestyle reasons - with a generally warm and sunny climate, political and religious freedom, strong economy, and considered one of the safest countries in the world, Australia has long held a strong appeal to those coming from overseas. Although some immigration Down Under resulted from conflicts, as was the case for many Vietnamese immigrants in the 1960s and 70s. With global warming becoming a genuine threat to many lives across the world, we may soon see climate change as the main driver of migration to Australia.
So, where might future climate change refugees to Australia come from? Many countries in Africa, the Caribbean, and the Asia-Pacific region are acutely vulnerable due to various climate change phenomenon, including rising sea levels, tsunamis, and earthquakes. Let’s have a closer look at each of these regions.
Haiti: in the middle of the hurricane basin
Climate change can exacerbate other economic, political, and social issues, multiplying threats on the population. Haiti, already ranked as the poorest country in the western hemisphere, is also at high risk of extreme weather events due to its position in the Atlantic hurricane basin. Scientists aren’t unanimous on whether climate change increases the frequency of hurricanes, but they do believe that they are becoming wetter and more intense through global environmental impacts. As well as the seasonal hurricanes, Haiti was also hit by devastating Earthquakes in 2010 and 2018. Coupled with high unemployment and violence, climate change impacts may soon drive Haitians to look to other countries for a safer way of life.
The Maldives - slowly sinking
The Maldives, a glamourous tropical holiday destination for many, has long also been considered the poster child for the consequences of climate change. Consisting of thousands of low-lying islands, the nation is at risk of sinking under the water due to rising sea levels. The highest point of the entire country is only 2 feet above sea level, while 80% of it is actually below sea level. This is threatening their beaches through erosion, and freshwater resources through rising sea levels where it starts to contaminate underground water pockets. Beach erosion, along with warming sea temperatures that are bleaching and killing off their coral reefs, popular with tourists, could have a devastating impact on their tourism industry. The Maldives heavily relies on tourism with over a third of the country’s GDP coming through the industry. Without employment, or possibly a place to live, many Maldivians may need to seek a new home.
As far back as 12 years ago, the Maldivian president was already considering alternative plans for the nation’s at-risk population. He raised the question of purchasing land in Australia that could house part of the country’s inhabitants in the event of the rising sea levels impacting on homes in the Maldives!
Bangladesh - another economically fragile low-lying country
Bangladesh, with a population of 160 million, has long been flagged as a country highly susceptible to climate change. With an increasingly volatile global climate environment, they can expect an increase in severe storms, flooding, and drought. According to the ‘Climate Change Vulnerability Index’, Bangladesh is ranked as the most vulnerable country in the world.
Yemen - the devastating impact of war coupled with climate change
Both war and climate change will make water shortages and famine even more likely in this war-torn country. According to a United Nations report, most contemporary famines result from armed conflict and are worsened by natural disasters. With over 3.3M Yemeni’s having been displaced since 2015, and many surviving in refugee camps, water shortage could have a devastating impact on human life.
The Philippines - at risk from multiple environmental threats
The Philippines faces a high risk of natural disasters, including earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, and especially hurricanes. Manila, which is located along the coast, is also densely populated, which makes it more difficult to evacuate and makes it more challenging to rebuild after a disaster. Poor infrastructure, including ineffective drainage and sanitation systems, has been blamed for the toll of floods in the city, including a 2009 flood that submerged 80% of the the Philippines’ capital.
Kiribati - could be wiped off the map
The Republic of Kiribati is believed to be at risk of being rendered uninhabitable by rising sea levels, and in the worst case scenario it can be wiped off the map entirely in the coming decades. The Kiribati government has purchased some land in Fiji, just in case they need to relocate some or all of the population in future.
Like the Maldives, the islands are very low-lying, averaging only six feet above sea level and sit upon a system of atolls and reef islands, which means that rising sea levels are a threat to the nation’s existence.
Ioane Teitiota, a Kiribati national, attempted to become a climate refugee to New Zealand in 2015, arguing that his family’s lives were at risk from climate change and sea level rise. His argument ended up being dismissed on the basis that his life was not at imminent risk. However, a recent landmark ruling by the UN Human Rights Committee may give Mr Teitiota cause for hope. This ruling has stated that governments cannot return people to countries where their lives may be under threat of climate change which may be the spark that enables environmental migration on a grandiose scale.
And what about ‘The Lucky Country’?
It’s possible that in future Australia may not be the ideal location for climate change migrants. In recent decades Australia has suffered multiple environmental disasters that resulted from climate change including the devastating bushfires 2019/2020 that killed over a billion animals and the Millennium drought of central Australia in the mid-1990s to late 2000s. In addition, much of the country has increasingly suffered from extreme heat. Extreme weather events such as Brisbane’s heat event of 2014, South Australia’s record warm October in 2015, or NSW’s hottest ever summer of 2017 are at least 50 times more likely to re-occur in the current climate than in the past, before global warming began.
A Climatologist and Geophysicist, Michael Mann, Director of the Earth System Science Centre, argues that Australia could become so hot and dry, that many Australians could become climate refugees themselves. He states: “It is conceivable that much of Australia simply becomes too hot and dry for human habitation”. The near future will show if we will continue to be “The Lucky Country” or whether we will have to be seeking refuge, same as millions of environmental migrants doing today.