Small Wars Journal

“Refugees and Climate Change: A Cause for Hope?” - Part I: Introduction to a Five-Part Series

Tue, 03/12/2019 - 12:27am

“Refugees and Climate Change: A Cause for Hope?” - Part I: Introduction to a Five-Part Series


J. David Thompson


This is the first paper in a multipart series. SWJ will release a new part everyday for the next five days, titled “Refugees and Climate Change: A Cause for Hope?”




Refugees and climate change. Could there be two more depressing topics to cover? There are currently over 70 million people forcibly displaced across the world.[i] This is more than the populations of California and Texas combined.[ii] Further, more than an estimated 10 million people are stateless.[iii] In addition to the 70 million forcibly displaced, this equates to about the population of Germany.[iv] These numbers do not count the 24 million people displaced by catastrophic weather events each year since 2008.[v] Add in reports that climate change is humanity’s greatest threat,[vi] predictions of over 143 million forcibly displaced by climate events (in Sub-Saharan Africa alone) by 2050,[vii] and that failing to address climate change is suicidal,[viii] and one has a very fun twenty pages ahead.


Fortunately, for the reader and writer’s sake, this paper predominantly looks at the positive. Who would think that there could be a positive side to refugees and climate change? In the face of so much negativity, depravity, and heartache, where does one find positivity? The world faces significant challenges with refugees and climate change.


States, international organizations, and the private sector found ways to respond to these crises simultaneously. There is still a long way to go, and humanity may not make it. That does not mean it has to be doom and gloom for the remainder of the ride, though. There are a lot of positive things happening that can make a difference and give humanity a chance. That is not to say that all of this paper only focuses on the positive, though. Sometimes, people need to view the good and the bad of a situation to understand what differences happened to rectify in the future. This becomes apparent later.


Part II of the paper provides a few case studies. There are currently twenty-three active situations for refugees and stateless people.[ix] Part II reviews the intersection of environmental and refugee response in just a few of these. It reviews how the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and Lebanon responded differently to the Syrian refugee crisis. One country sought to actively integrate refugees in its overall desire to become a zero-carbon emitting country by 2050. The other chose to basically ignore refugees while offering little to no governmental assistance.[x] (Here is where the aforementioned comment becomes apparent.) Part II also looks at the Rohingya refugee situation in Bangladesh. This is a unique situation as it is one of the only refugee situations where the majority of refugees are in formal camps. Next, Part II looks at refugee situations in Africa and how the private sector made positive impacts at the intersection of green business and refugee response.


Part III looks at an emerging issue: what status is given to people forcibly displaced by climate change? Climate change was on the minds of very few, if any, people when drafting the 1951 Refugee Convention or 1967 Additional Protocol. As people become more aware, some activists want to grant refugee status to those displaced by climate change, as evidenced during negotiations to draft the recent Global Compact on Refugees. Part III questions the wisdom of this activism but recognizes the necessity of some form of legal protection. It also reviews some of the policies around refugee or climate displacement integration.


Part IV reviews the national security implications of climate change and refugees. It analyzes the change from the 2015 National Security Strategy and the 2017 National Security Strategy. It also challenges current narratives that paint refugees as a security threat or as a partisan issue. It does this by reviewing statements, U.S. voluntary contributions to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), and refugee resettlements in the U.S through several administrations.


Part V concludes the series with a bit of personal reflection. It provides a few memories and thoughts of where to find hope in such grave topics. As the papers will show, the world faces serious threats. Where can one find hope given such conditions?


End Notes


[i] Reynolds, M., at 13:14.

[ii] Id.

[iii] Id.

[iv] Id.

[v] Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, Global Internal Displacement Database. See also McDonnell, T., The Refugees the World Barely Pays Attention To.

[vi] McGrath, M., Sir David Attenborough: Climate change 'our greatest threat'.

[vii] Rigaud, K.K. et al., Groundswell: Preparing for International Climate Migration.

[viii] McGrath, M., Climate change: Failure to tackled warming ‘suicidal’. 

[ix] UNHCR, Operational Portal.

[x] This is not to say that the people of that country have not been incredibly hospitable.

About the Author(s)

J. David Thompson is a Civil Affairs Major. He has a Juris Doctorate from Washington Lee School of Law. He also holds a BS in Economics and MBA-Leadership from Liberty University. Outside the military, he's worked at the UN Refugee Agency, Department of Defense, and Physicians for Human Rights – Israel. Follow him on Twitter @jdthompson910