Future Tense

What Are We Going to Do With More Than 200 Million Climate Refugees?

Illustration of a girl and a dog being rescued via helicopter, with the girl hugging the dog
Illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo/Slate

Two climate migration researchers respond to Matt Bell’s “Empathy Hour.”

It’s already happening. Millions in low-lying Bangladesh are fleeing stronger cyclones and increased coastal flooding. After Hurricane Maria, thousands of Puerto Ricans have left behind their blue-tarped homes for the mainland United States. And farmers from the Sahel to Central America are abandoning their dried-up fields in droves.

The increasingly dire effects of climate change are resulting in unprecedented levels of displacement globally. And it’s going to get worse: The World Bank recently estimated that there could be more than 200 million “climate refugees” by 2050. Experts suggest that about one-quarter of them will move overseas, while the rest will migrate within their own countries.

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What will happen to these migrants as they leave their homes and livelihoods, and how will their new communities receive them?

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In “Empathy Hour,” Matt Bell shares a dystopian vision for climate refugees in the coming decades. The story follows Francis, a climate refugee who helps turn out feel-good propaganda in one of Earth’s “Cities,” high-tech and affluent communities that are sealed off from near-constant natural disasters. By his own account, Francis is lucky: Nearly all of the other refugees in his City are stuck in low-wage jobs, working as waiters, janitors, or trash collectors.

And, perhaps unsurprisingly, Francis comes to find out that climate refugees outside of the Cities have it much, much worse. About halfway through the story, we meet Francis’ childhood friend Eli, who reveals that most refugees (including himself) live in “the Camps,” grimy and crowded settlements in which they secretly carry out crude cleanup and production work in service of the Cities. The masses are kept quiet through a steady stream of disinformation that encourages the status quo.

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It’s a highly stratified and tightly controlled society, a sort of “climate apartheid” in which a fortunate few live in luxurious safety, and everyone else is trapped in a mix of slavery and the apocalypse. And such a future isn’t too far off, based on where we are today. Many of the themes and issues raised in “Empathy Hour” reflect the contemporary plight of climate refugees in the 21st century—legally, economically, and socially.

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To start, there’s no international legal framework for dealing with—or even recognizing—climate refugees. The 1951 Refugee Convention, a seminal agreement signed by most countries worldwide, defines a refugee as an individual “who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.” Those displaced by Cyclone Idai in Mozambique, drought in the Northern Triangle, or desertification in West Africa aren’t likely covered.

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Without the protections that come with refugee status, those forced to move because of extreme weather will struggle to access their new country’s formal economy as well as health care, education, housing, and other social services, leaving them vulnerable to economic exploitation, or worse. Significantly shut out from the rest of society, many will be left with few options to make a living and provide for their families.

Right now, the lack of a “climate refugee” classification results in many of those currently on the move due to climate change being viewed as “economic migrants.” That’s because in all but the most extreme cases—entire Pacific islands sinking underwater, for example—the most immediate effect of climate change is often the disappearance of jobs and income.

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Research shows that people are less supportive of economic migrants than of war refugees or (theoretically) climate migrants. We’ve seen this play out in European and other Western countries, where xenophobia has become increasingly mainstream in part because of the 2010s refugee crisis. Not only that: Just as in “Empathy Hour,” economic migrants are often exploited as cheap labor. The nearly 2 million migrants stuck building roads, stadiums, and other infrastructure ahead of the 2022 Qatar World Cup under subhuman conditions are just the latest example of this trend.

We can also see the dehumanization of migrants in the way many countries physically separate newcomers, often walling them off in squalid housing on city outskirts. Similar to Eli’s camp, well-known examples include the Paris banlieues and the Calais Jungle in France, Rohingya shantytowns outside of Cox’s Bazar, and Syrian refugee settlements in a number of Lebanese and Turkish border towns.

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Unfortunately, negative attitudes toward climate refugees will likely increase in the future, leaving them marginalized and vulnerable to future disasters to an even greater extent. None of this is humane, just, or sustainable. But there are current approaches we can adopt to better protect the climate-displaced and avoid the dystopia within “Empathy Hour.”

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Some legal experts, for example, are pushing to expand the definition of refugee by adding a new category for “forced migrants,” which would include climate migrants as well as others who don’t fit under the 1951 definition. Others advocate for broader use of “free movement” provisions found within many regional trade agreements, which can accommodate climate refugees. (Such agreements allowed those displaced during the 2017 Caribbean hurricane season to move more easily, and access safe housing and good jobs.) Climate expert Michael Gerard has long argued that major emitters should take in a percentage of the world’s population that is displaced by climate change, roughly proportional to these countries’ contribution to the load of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere.

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But any legal solution requires political will. And thus far, the U.S., the EU, China, and other major emitters haven’t warmed to the idea of accepting responsibility for climate displacement.

International human rights law does offer glimmers of hope for climate refugees. In 2020, the U.N.’s Human Rights Committee found that it’s unlawful for governments to return people to countries where their lives might be threatened by the climate crisis. The case involved a native of the rapidly sinking island nation of Kiribati who sought asylum in New Zealand. While the judges ultimately ruled against the man, they issued an important proclamation that the effects of climate change may be considered human rights violations that preclude refugees from returning to their home countries. Legal scholars have hailed this as an incremental victory, opening the way for climate-related human rights abuse claims.

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While academics and lawyers are hammering out a legal solution for climate refugees, however, counties directly under threat are starting to get creative. Island nations like Vanuatu and Fiji are developing planned relocation policies, and the Dhaka-based International Centre for Climate Change and Development is building climate-resilient “migrant-friendly” towns in inland Bangladesh.

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These approaches are closely related to a widespread and critical need for places that will receive climate refugees: Projected “climate havens,” such as the U.S. Midwest, Vermont, and even Scotland must plan for an influx of new residents through an emphasis on affordable housing, improved and expanded social services, and well-paying jobs. Such communities can’t get started soon enough.

“Empathy Hour” lays out a climate-wrecked future that is unequal, oppressive, and artificial in more ways than one. Given our current treatment of climate refugees and struggles with collective climate action, it’s maybe not too far a leap. Yet we also have opportunity here in the early 21st century to ensure that those displaced by climate change are better protected and assimilated into their new homes. To paraphrase Eli, right after he exposes the truth about the Camps: Our future can be made better, for all of us.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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