Monday, December 31, 2007

Climate change refugees need help from world

Toronto Star (Canada): So named by the traditional Maasai people who live in its shadows, Tanzania's Mount Kilimanjaro is undergoing a slow but steady transformation – one that threatens everyone around it. The majestic glaciers that cap Africa's tallest mountain are melting, victims of a warming Earth. A third of the ice has disappeared in the past 20 years. In another 20 years, nothing will be left.

And with that goes the primary water source for the Maasai people who live nearby. Tens of thousands of them have given up their long-held pastoral lifestyle to settle under Kilimanjaro, establishing communities along a pipeline that funnels water from the glaciers straight into neighbouring Kenya. When that water runs out, so will the lifeblood of these communities. There will be nothing to sustain crops and the Maasai there will have no choice but to abandon the lives they've made for themselves.

They will join the fast-growing numbers of climate change refugees – people forced to leave their homes by the impact of global warming. The United Nations says there are 20 million climate change refugees, more than those displaced by war and political repression combined. By 2050, that could increase to 150 million.

From the plains of Africa to the islands of the South Pacific, entire towns and communities are being driven away by extended drought, rising sea levels and desertification. While bad weather is nothing new, the rate at which this is now occurring makes it clear that these refugees are the first victims of global warming.

Despite this, climate change refugees remain in legal limbo. The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) defines "refugees" as victims of war, persecution or civil conflict who have been forced to flee their countries. This does not include victims of climate change, meaning they are not entitled to the asylum or assistance normally granted to refugees. "In law, `refugee' has a very specific meaning," says Audrey Macklin, assistant professor at the University of Toronto's Faculty of Law.

Even though much of the world's pollution is caused by Western industrialized nations – not the rural developing countries most affected by it – there is no international legal obligation to help climate change refugees, she says.

The UNHCR explanation is that, unlike political refugees, victims of climate change can still appeal to their home governments for help. The organization also says it simply does not have the funds to care for millions of additional people. But that doesn't mean they should be ignored. Macklin says that the impact of climate change is a political issue as much as it is a legal issue, and that there is also nothing forbidding countries from taking the initiative to act.

"There's all sorts of things to do if there is political will," she says. New Zealand, for example, has agreed to take in 11,000 people from Tuvalu, the nearby string of islands threatened with destruction by rising sea levels.

…While prevention is still key, we must now also start learning how to live with climate change.

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