The world has witnessed some of the greatest scenes of mass migration in recent years, after the crisis in Syria forced millions of civilians to flee to Europe. As devastating as these scenes are, they are likely to be just a saddening taste of the displacement that could be caused by the threat from climate change.  
The so-called "climate change refugees" are expected to number between 250 and 1,000 million people over the next 50 years, according to estimates by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). 

Last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) explicitly recognized that “climate change over the 21st century is projected to increase the displacement of people.” Furthermore, it “can indirectly increase risks of violent conflicts in the form of civil war and inter-group violence by amplifying well-documented drivers of these conflicts such as poverty and economic shocks.”

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Although these are only projected numbers, “there are already people who are being forced from their homes by climate change. For example, in the Arctic, which is warming at twice the rate of the planet, indigenous communities are being forced to relocate inland because their villages are literally falling into the sea,” said Alice Thomas, climate displacement program manager at Refugees International.

This forced displacement, which is a result of natural disasters, has been a major problem worldwide. Since 2008, an average of 22.5 million people have relocated each year from their homes, following weather-related disasters brought on by floods, storms, wildfires and extreme temperatures. It is expected that this situation will be exacerbated in the coming years due to the effects of global warming. 

Climate change causes an increase in the frequency and force of extreme weather such as mega-floods, super-typhoons and prolonged drought. It’s why extreme weather events may become the norm, rather than the exception.

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“People exposed and vulnerable to the impact of such events face the increasing risk of becoming displaced from their homes. The rise in sea level is also expected to be a significant driver of displacement in the future, as people’s homes become gradually uninhabitable or natural resource-dependent livelihoods are eroded, especially in small island countries and low-lying coastal areas,” said Michelle Yonetani, senior strategic advisor on disasters of the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC).

In addition to the dramatic situation of having to leave their homes, "climate change migrants" may not qualify as refugees under the 1951 Convention, which states that refugee status does not extend to people forced to flee their countries due to climate change effects. Technically, these individuals do not fall into the definition of a "refugee" who is someone fleeing conflict or persecution by crossing an international border. Therefore, so called "climate change refugees" don’t have any international protection.

According to projections by UN agencies and experts, climate change is an issue that could materially affect humanity in the near future. 

“The international community must commit to take bold action to curb climate change impacts and do all that it can to prevent forced displacement,” Thomas said.

“The preparation, solidarity and cooperation among States, organizations, sub regional and international community is essential to prevent, avoid and respond to displacement in the context of climate change," Marine Franck, UNHCR climate change officer, said.

- By Daniel Casillas