Human Consequences of Climate Change, Climate Refugees: An Exploratory Essay

by Frederick A. Snyder-Manetti

Read the paper here. Below is the abstract:

While planning my course schedule for the 2009 Spring Semester, I found myself desperately short of elective credits toward my Bachelor of Arts degree in Geography in order to graduate by the end of the 2010 Autumn Semester. From the limited course choices offered for the spring semester, only two worked with the other required courses I needed as well: Cultural & Global Competence and Global Hot Spots. Little did I know at the time, but the latter would prove to be the most stimulating course of my entire undergraduate geography program. Not only did this course forge within me a true interest in the current affairs of an ever-growing globalized society, it also provided me with a thesis topic to pursue during my anticipated master’s program.

At the heart of the Global Hot Spots’ curriculum were three over-arching themes: the global food crisis, the global health crisis, and the global environment crisis. These themes laid the groundwork for all topics that fueled our daily projects and peer discussions. The topics included, but were not limited to, economic globalization; rising levels of obesity in Western countries; the insurgence of global “super bugs;” issues related to projected world population growth rates; the emergence of a global north versus a global south; and projected sea-level rise owing to rising temperatures.

As a class, the first item we would broach each meeting were two questions meant to open our daily in-class discussions. But on March 12, 2009 we, as a class, failed to answer the questions for the first and only time. The two questions were: “What is a Climate Refugee; define and give examples?” and “What are ways potential Climate Refugees can alter their traditional/current homes to prevent climate/environmental displacement? Give examples if known?” Our entire group was thoroughly puzzled by the idea of a refugee being a displaced member of a society because of climate change, let alone methods by which humans could adapt fast enough to preserve their ways of life against something so powerful as the climate change. Ever since that day, the mounting realities of climate refugees, how they have come to exist from human prehistory to the present, and the growing global issues related to their ever-increasing numbers has provided not only my thesis topic but commanded (and haunted to a certain extent) my research interests for the last four years.

However, about half way through my graduate program, my studies took a turn away from my original proposed topic of simply researching climate refugees. Through many lively discussions with my peers, co-workers, and anyone curious about my chosen topic of climate refugees, I began to realize over time that the vast majority of the people I interacted with had no idea what a climate refugee was, is, or will be. This ostensibly universal ignorance made the navigation of a discussion that revolved around climate refugees quite perilous at times. Eventually, I came to notice that there was a glaring common element among the vast majority of these people who could not come to grips with the idea of a climate refugee. Most of the individuals that I interacted with lacked the most basic understanding of how Earth functions, from a physical geographic standpoint, and the extent of codependent interaction among Earth’s systems. Once I provided that information as a foundation to understand the topic of climate refugees, then these people could engage in higher discussions that revolved around displaced individuals due to either minor or extreme environmental shifts. With that in mind, I was compelled to include in my research larger sections devoted to the elements of Earth’s systems, human consequences related to the interactions with those same systems and their processes, alongside my original topic of climate refugees.