As climate change accelerates refugee crisis, experts stress the need for a shift in social attitudes, global cooperation

climate change refugees
Victims of heavy climate-induced flooding from monsoon rains rest with their relief aid from the Pakistani Army in the Qambar Shahdadkot district of Sindh Province, Pakistan. U.N. AP Photo/Fareed Khan

Floods and storms have displaced millions of people living in Southeast Asia in recent years. And people in port cities, coastal communities and river deltas will continue to be the first affected as climate change creates a refugee crisis the globe will be forced to address. 

“We are not going to prevent climate change,” says Anthony Grayling, professor of philosophy at Northeastern University London. “What we have to do is find ways now of thinking about how to cope with it. It’s a question of mitigation, not prevention.”

Climate change will create a refugee crisis in a matter of decades, Grayling says. In his opinion, now is the time to think about worst-case scenarios and how to manage them.

The World Bank estimates that by 2050 climate change will uproot 216 million people. The Institute for Economics and Peace approximates that during the same period about 1.2 billion people could be displaced because of natural disasters. 

Grayling recently moderated a conversation titled, “The Impact of Climate Change on the Refugee Crisis.” The discussion included Gordana Rabrenovic, associate professor of sociology and director of the Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflict at Northeastern, and Rosalind C. Morris, professor of anthropology at Columbia University.

The first people who will be affected by climate change, Morris says, will be those living in Southeast Asia—in port cities, coastal communities and in river deltas. The first immediate challenge will be heating and feeding climate change refugees.

The most difficult challenge is how to have people live with each other. We are all in the same boat. These issues are global and need many comprehensive solutions.

Gordana Rabrenovic, associate professor of sociology and director of the Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflict at Northeastern

To prepare for this, everyone must be engaged in discussion and policy-making, she says. That includes governments and international organizations, as well as people living in small villages without the internet (who are subject to droughts) and multimillionaires (who are organizing the technological revolution).

Rabrenovic suggested a number of steps that can be done now to prepare for natural disasters and subsequent displacement of people. 

First, the international community needs to create clear paths to legalizing people who are forced from their homes, she says. It also should create stable financial resources to support displaced people, providing them with housing, education and employment. 

To this point, Morris says, there is enough money in the world to finance these needs; they are just distributed very unequally. 

“The ambition to generate $100 billion to support nations most affected by climate change has fallen short thus far,” Morris says of the United Nations climate negotiations that took place in November. “It has to be one of the central pillars [of discussion].”

Redistribution of wealth should be done not from the point of “fair versus unjust,” Rabrenovic says. After all, she says, even wealthy people will encounter problems caused by climate change, so the global community needs to incentivize redistribution of wealth.

Wealthy people need to see the “aha moment,” and often that happens in small group discussions, Rabrenovic says.

“It can be done with a common interest or common goal,” she says.

Arts and futuristic literature could also help people envision what can be done and realize that it needs to be done collectively.

“Imagination is really the key here,” Rabrenovic says. “You could not build or change the world, if you do not imagine the world can be better.”

Throughout history, politics have stood in the way of finding new homes for refugees. Climate change refugees will be no different, Grayling and Morris say.

“Nationalism has never been stronger. Border policing has never been more virulent,” Morris says. “And the inequalities that govern the distribution of wealth in the world have never been so intense.”

It doesn’t help that refugees are oftentimes put in areas and neighborhoods that are already in social and economic distress. That is how poor people are pinned against other poor people, which leads to scapegoating, Rabrenovic says.

“The most difficult challenge is how to have people live with each other,” she says. “We are all in the same boat. These issues are global and need many comprehensive solutions.”

She believes people need to make themselves welcoming to deal with migrants because anyone can be displaced in the future.

“Or let others help us if we are displaced,” Rabrenovic says.   

People around the world, Morris says, will have to change their attitudes and become more accepting to deal with mass movements and live with unfamiliar migrants.    

“People will have to transform social character,” she says.

Figuring out how to foster social integration, Rabrenovic says, is of paramount importance.

“Education is required to prepare people for having to accept large numbers of incomers and integrating them into societies,” Grayling says. 

Alena Kuzub is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email her at Follow her on Twitter @AlenaKuzub.