Like the seas, the number of climate refugees is rising


Climate change is already a major driver of forced displacement around the world. And if things continue the way they are, there are many more refugees on the way.

By Chris Johansen



During the 1990s, I was part of a team working on improvement of chickpea crops at a global level, being a crop physiologist employed by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) based in Hyderabad, India.

We had collaborative programs with the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), headquartered in Aleppo, Syria. I used to travel to Aleppo and chickpea growing regions of Syria regularly through that decade as part of that collaboration.

Chickpea, like the other main crops of Syria like wheat and lentil, are rainfed and their yields are dependent on the winter-spring rainfall (a Mediterranean climate, like south-west WA).

During the later years of the 1990s, there was a decline in this rainfall – with consequent declines in crop yields and production, and decreased income for farmers but inflated prices for agricultural products for urban consumers. This pushed much of the population already near the margin – due to a repressive regime and poor economic management – closer to that margin.

However, even more severe droughts occurred during 2007-10, pushing many in rural and urban areas over that margin to the point where they dared to revolt against the long-incumbent government. The Arab Spring occurred in 2011, with documented evidence that the underlying catalyst was the increasing intensity of droughts.

The rest is history, with millions of Syrians fleeing the country, mainly to Turkey and Europe. There was also a consequent rise in xenophobia in those areas – and it is still an evolving tragedy, as exemplified by the recent invasion of northern Syria by Turkey.


At ICRISAT, I was also involved in agricultural research and development efforts in Africa. At one stage I had responsibility for designing improvements in crop agronomy in Niger, which sits on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert and is indeed largely semi-desert.

The main crops are short duration millets and cowpea grown on the sparse, intermittent monsoon rains. Over the previous half-century, rainfall was on a downward trend although there was large between- and within-year variation. Furthermore, temperatures were rising over the years, increasing evaporation of soil water.

With this severe limitation of soil water availability, there were few agronomic improvements that I could think of. Local farmers had already perfected the idea of sowing seeds in basins to concentrate any rainwater near the plants. They could not afford the fertilisers required to alleviate nutrient deficiencies. They didn’t return crop residues to the soil to improve it as it was required to feed their cattle and camels. Breeding of higher yielding, even shorter duration and drought resistant crops adapted to this environment is a long-term venture.

Furthermore, at that time the population of Niger was increasing faster than in most other African countries. I concluded that little could be done in the realm of agronomy to improve livelihoods – and that if livelihoods were to be improved there would need to be migration to elsewhere. This conclusion probably did not go down well with the ICRISAT senior management as in that year my annual salary increment was at the lower end of the scale.

The large scale migration of people from Niger and surrounding countries, particularly Mali, and to Europe over the past decade can at least partially be attributed to the declining and increasingly erratic rainfall of the region as the climate changed.


Bangladesh is a country with only twice the area of Tasmania but with a population of some 164 million. Being largely a delta of major river systems (Ganges, Brahmaputra) the soil is relatively fertile but the elevation of the southern delta region barely reaches five metres above sea level, approaching less than one metre near the coast.

Historically, cyclones that develop in the Bay of Bengal move up towards southern Bangladesh, intensifying as they go. They cause multiple casualties and massive destruction through storm surges, winds sometimes exceeding 200 km/hr, and torrential downpours.

Having been either living in (1979-82, 2000-06) or regularly visiting this country over the past 40 years, the thought of when the next cyclone will strike has been a constant concern – particularly how these destructive cyclones would intensify with climate change. Global warming causes greater evaporation of sea water in the tropics, and hence more intense cyclones. Sea level rise – even of a few millimetres – magnifies the power of storm surges and pushes salt ingress further inland.

However, these climate change fears developed in the 1990s have not yet panned out in this century (apart from a severe cyclone in 2007). Since around the year 2000, cyclones developing in the southern Bay of Bengal have usually veered to the west, making landfall on the east coast of India (Andhra Pradesh, Odissa) before they develop into monster storms. Not sure why this is, but perhaps due to increased heating of peninsular India in spring/summer intensifying upward convection currents.

Nevertheless, the threat of climate change-charged super-cyclones intensifying as they move up towards Bangladesh still remains. Should they hit, then climate refugees would inevitably number in the millions. Many simply could not return to their original dwellings due to ingress of salt water and the land being ever more vulnerable to inundation. And many would simply try to leave the country, by any means, due to the difficulties of them being relocated within an already crowded country.


The World Bank predicts that, by 2050, numbers of refugees directly displaced by climate change would be in the order of 140 million. However, with climate change accelerating, this is more likely to be an underestimate than an overestimate. As seen in Syria over the past decade, climate change not only creates climate refugees but, in turn, conflict refugees.

I’m not aware of any evidence that the Australian government is doing any contingency planning for increased numbers of climate and conflict refugees, beyond their “stop the boats” policy. Perhaps because they don’t recognise climate change as a problem, likely to increase numbers of refugees trying to get to places such as Australia.

Their approach is to convert Australia into a ‘gated community’, protecting the country’s prosperity – but not worrying too much about the three million Australians below the poverty line – from the external hordes. ‘Border security’ has been vastly strengthened, and migration quotas – especially for those of non-European origin – reduced. Any refugees who do slip through the net are locked up indefinitely in remote concentration camps to serve as a deterrent to anyone else seeking refuge here.

After World War Two, it was widely acknowledged that the way to minimise mass migrations and conflict was to provide development aid, such that disadvantaged people could improve their livelihoods where they actually lived. This concept seems to have been largely abandoned by Australia, with its development aid slashed over the years – and what aid is provided is done so for political reasons (e.g. more aid to Fiji to counter Chinese influence there). If Australia were really to be concerned about an influx of refugees, we should think about increasing development aid to places where such refugees are likely to originate.

Further, if the Australian government was to be concerned about increasing numbers of climate refugees – which they are now not as they do not consider global climate change as a problem – then they would whole-heartedly participate in a global effort to minimise greenhouse gas emissions. This is illustrated by a recent comment from our deputy PM in relation to possible climate refugees from submerging Pacific islands. He joked that they could come here on temporary work permits to pick fruit, but he didn’t say where they might go after the fruit-picking season.

The government’s aim seems to be firmly focused on increasing the prosperity of the gated community of Australia, to a large extent by selling as much coal and gas as possible while there are still customers. However, within that broader gated community of Australia the wealth seems to end up in much smaller gated communities: the wealthy 10 percent.

Even if the world does manage to drastically cut emissions and cap global temperature rise to 1.5 °C by 2030, there is enough latent energy in the biosphere to keep climate catastrophes coming. Thus, there will be an inevitable increase in human migration, usually in the form of fleeing refugees.

Australia is certainly not addressing this likelihood – but nor is much of the world at large.

Chris Johansen is the co-editor of Green Issue. This article originally appeared in Green Issue.

Hero image by Julien Harneis published under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

BAck to december issue