Everyone to New Zealand? The debate on Climate Change and Migration
According to Adam Fier, portrayed in last week's article by Shankar Vedantam in the Washington Post, New Zealand is the place to go if you want to evade the impacts of global warming. Fier, a former computer security professional at NASA, has packed up his family and belongings and moved from Montgomery County, Maryland, all the way to New Zealand, where he believes that effects of climate change will be least drastic in comparison to other countries of the world. Vedantam describes Fier as one of the many "Ecomigrants" that the world should expect to see in the future decades. While the term Ecomigrant might be sound a lot like Ecotourism -- a comfortable way for affluent individual travelers to enjoy the outdoors in foreign places -- ecomigration has no such "comfortable" connotation. Rather, it describes the process of people forced to leave their original environment that has because uninhabitable because of climate change. Some figures predict that 25 million up to one billion people worldwide could be forced to leave or flee their homes over the next 50 years due to water shortages, droughts, deteriorating pasture land, or rising sea level. That is not to mention those that flee severe weather conditions or natural disasters, like Hurricane Katrina in 2005. As with every debate involving academics, politicians, and governments, the frantic search for reliable numbers and terminology begins, which can cause media to overlook an issue as too dry. Can we call these people ecomigrants? Environmental migrants? Climate Refugees? Environmentally displaced persons? It is not surprising that the UNHCR does not want to use the oft-heard term "Climate Refugees" because the category of refugees, as set forth in the Geneva Convention, only accounts for those that have fled across country borders. Most climate-induced migration is likely to occur within country borders. Agreeing on the term "Refugee" would imply that the UNHCR should actually be mainly responsible, but faced with a limited budget, this seems unlikely. Now, one could ask why this debate about terminology is so important -- does it really matter for those that have to leave their homes? Certainly not directly, but if politicians, national governments, and political entities like the UN or the EU start this debate on terminology, they will not be able to steer clear of what is inadvertently and ultimately tied to terminology: the question of responsibility and governance of the phenomenon. As one member of the European Parliament put it, "As long as there is no agreed-upon terminology, we cannot really say who should be doing what!" The poorest nations will be the ones hardest hit by effects of climate change, yet they are the ones least responsible for it. Thus, it is not surprising that they call for a supranational way, or even a supranational financial fund, to support affected regions and countries. No matter what we call it, it is time that the topic of environmental migration is adequately addressed in the political sphere so that further actions and steps can be taken. In the meantime, 75 Tuvaluans are generously accepted to New Zealand every year, not as "ecomigrants," though, but under a labor migration scheme.
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