News & Media Opinion Pieces Climate change and Environmental Refugees

Climate change and Environmental Refugees

Draft discussion paper for Doctors for the Environment Australia
By Bryan Furnass.
This paper will be developed into a Policy.

1) Climate change is an established scientific fact, and DEA should plan policies to help the Australian community adapt to its effects

2) Over coming decades, southern Australia is likely to experience continuing droughts, fires, heat waves and threats to food security in inland areas, with rising sea levels and storms threatening human habitation in low-lying coastal areas. Water security will be an on-going priority problem nation-wide. Although at risk from increasing cyclone activity, northern Australia may expect greater than average rainfall, particularly during La Nina events

3) Lives can be saved by governments instituting early warning systems and advice for protection of property. The medical profession is likely to be increasingly involved in advising patients in cases of stress following habitat displacement, prevention of heat stroke and, in some areas, with vector-borne tropical diseases

4) Rising sea levels may render tens of thousands of people homeless in Pacific Island states, with nowhere to go. Australia will be expected to accept many of them as environmental refugees

5) Over coming decades, rising sea levels and storms may threaten densely populated low lying areas in South and Southeast Asia, with high casualty rates both from direct impact and subsequently compromised food and water supplies and infectious diseases
6) In keeping with past experience, the great majority of environmental refugees will find re-settlement in inland areas of their own lands or in neighbouring states with similar cultural values

7) In the long term, Australia may be confronted with many thousands of environmental refugees departing by boat from the Pacific Basin and wishing to settle in northern Australia. This will require a profound ethical decision by the Federal Government whether to continue with a “Fortress Australia” policy or be willing to co-operate with the international community and the Northern Territory Government in accepting large numbers of environmental refugees, probably most of them in northern Australia

8) As in previous instances, mass migration will present many ethical, security, logistic and resource problems for re-settlement, presenting challenges for health management in the areas of psychological stress, malnutrition and infectious disease control

9) Northwest Australia has tremendous potential to become an economically and ecologically sustainable Territory. The key is access to renewable clean energy through construction of concentrated solar power (mirrors and steam turbines), geothermal energy, wind power and possibly tidal power. New buildings should be cyclone-proof and self-sustaining, using thermal mass, vertical ventilation, photovoltaic sliver cell technology, solar hot water systems and underground water tanks, with local grey water and black water re-cycling

10) A change in mindset is needed to replace the term “refugees” by “skilled migrants”, who have a long history of agricultural/horticultural wisdom and (in the case of Chinese migrants), experience in mass production technologies.

Draft discussion paper for Doctors for the Environment Australia

Likely impacts of climate change on Australia

The latest United Nations report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) paints an alarming picture of the emerging global impact of climate change. Predictions include rising sea levels, increased frequency and intensity of cyclones, droughts, floods and extreme weather events, loss of species diversity, threats to food and water security and the spread of vector-borne infectious diseases to wider latitudes and higher altitudes.

The number of people killed in the Oceania region by weather-related disasters rose 21% over the last three decades of the 20th century, including those effected by events such as cyclones, floods, landslides, droughts and extremes of temperature. Worldwide, around 188 million people were adversely affected by natural disasters in the 1990s, six times more than the 31 million directly or indirectly affected by war. These events will affect Australia indirectly, including pressures for migration from potential environmental refugees amongst our neighbours in the Pacific Islands and coastal areas of South and Southeast Asia.

The IPCC report states that over the next 20 to 50 years, coastal areas of Australia are likely to experience greater storm activity and water surges, with rising sea levels putting as many as 711,000 homes at risk from inundation. Inland areas are likely to experience increasingly severe droughts and bushfires. These events would produce many cases of direct injury, loss of homes, increase in infectious diseases in some communities and post-traumatic stress, for which health professionals must be prepared to help. As an indicator of the economic impact of natural disasters, the 2005 Sustainability Report for the Insurance Australia Group had this to say: “We are acutely aware of the impact of climate change on risks faced by the insurance industry. The past 19 out of 20 major insurance events in Australia have been weather related” (1).

Professor Tony McMichael (2), from the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at ANU has made some quantitative estimates of health risks from climate change. He states that heatwaves in summer could be killer events, particularly for the elderly with cardiovascular disease and for the very young. Australian summers already result in about 1200 excess heatwave- related deaths each year. A gradual up-trend in very hot days has taken place over the past couple of decades, reflecting an underlying warming trend. If the Australian population stays the same size over the next few decades, the death rate for those over 65 resulting from a summer of heatwaves would increase to between 2000 and 4000 a year. There are also likely to be more widespread mosquito-borne infectious diseases such as dengue fever, Ross River virus, Barmah Forest virus and possibly malaria, spreading southwards.

Impacts of climate change in the Pacific Basin

Alan Dupont, international security analyst and Graeme Pearman, climatologist, have co-authored a paper Heating up the planet – climate change and security (3) for the Lowy Institute for International Policy (Paper 12, 2006). They cite Hurricane Katrina, the so-called once in a century hurricane, which devastated the south-eastern coastal states of USA in August 2005, causing over 1000 deaths, displacing over one million people and costing by some estimates around US$125 billion in economic damage. More Katrinas can be expected because the Atlantic Basin and Gulf Coast regions, as well as other regions affected by tropical storms are experiencing a much more intense period of hurricane and tornado activity, with major storms (category four and five) having increased in frequency by 100% since the 1970s. Rather than being a once in a hundred years phenomenon, storms of commensurate strength may become more regular occurrences not only in the northern hemisphere but also in the Pacific’s cyclone belt, which affects northern Australia and most Pacific island states.

Natural disasters linked to climate change may prove an even greater security challenge for developing nations, displacing affected populations, feeding into existing or inter-communal conflicts. In extreme cases, the survival of the nation itself may be in question. For example, the 1998 monsoon season brought with it the worst flood in living memory to Bangladesh, inundating some 65% of the country, devastating its infrastructure and agricultural base. In the absence of effective mitigation strategies, a one metre rise in sea level would flood about 17.5% of Bangladesh and much of the Ganges river delta, which is the country’s food basket. Strangely, the UN does not officially recognise the category of environmental refugees.

Sea-level rises may also have dire consequences for low-lying atoll countries in the Pacific, such as Kiribati (population 78,000), the Marshall Islands (population 58,000), Tokelau (population 2000) and Tuvalu (population 9000). Dupont and Pearman estimate that by 2080 the flood risk for people living on small islands will be on average 200 times larger than if there had been no global warming, and the risk would be even higher if the melting of polar ice continues at present rates. Larger, more mountainous populous islands such as Fiji and New Caledonia will also be seriously affected. In a worst case scenario of sea level rise, much of Fiji’s productive land and urban areas would be flooded. Unsurprisingly, climate change has risen to the top of the political agenda in the Pacific, the leaders of all Pacific nations expressing their deep concern about the impact of climate variability and sea-level rise at the 2002 Pacific Island Forum.

Rising sea levels pose far wider challenges to regional security than the survival of small island states in the Western Pacific. Most of Asia’s densest aggregation of people and productive lands are on, or near, the coast, including the cities of Shanghai, Tianjin, Guanzhou, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Jakarta, Manila, Bangkok, Singapore, Mumbai and Dhaka. The areas under greatest threat are the Yellow and Yangtse river deltas in China, Manila Bay in the Philippines, the low lying coastal fringes of Sumatra, Kalimantan and Java in Indonesia, and the Mekong, Chao Phraya and Irrawaddy deltas in Vietnam, Thailand and Myanmar respectively. Many of these locations have not previously been susceptible to climate induced risks and their vulnerability has increased due to extensive urbanisation and human settlement in coastal and riverine environments, exacerbated by extensive land use clearance. Moreover, several large Asian cities are susceptible to cyclones driven by warm expanses of water that form in the west equatorial Pacific Ocean during summer. These cyclones produce strong tidal surges, especially in La Nina years, which can greatly increase the severity of coastal flooding and the consequent threat to lives, infrastructure, agriculture and fresh water.

Potential refugee migrations

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that there were 2.4 million refugees globally in 1975, rising tenfold over the following two decades, peaking at 27.4 million in 1995, thereafter declining to 19.2 million in 2005. In addition to political refugees, the possibility that climate change might cause mass migrations of environmental refugees and displaced persons from poorer states is a plausible one, with serious consequences for international security.

Dupont and Pearman have summarised the potential size and direction of environmental and climate change refugee migrations in the Pacific region, which are complex and interconnected. Ecological stress in the form of naturally occurring droughts, floods and pestilence has been a significant factor in forcing people to migrate since the beginning of recorded history. New migrants, regardless of whether or not they cross borders, can impinge on the living space of others, widen existing ethnic and religious divides and add to environmental stress in a self-sustaining cycle of migration and instability.

Some contend that environmental refugees now constitute the fastest growing proportion of refugees globally. Oxford academic Norman Myers (4) predicts that by 2050 up to 150 million people may be displaced by the impact of global warming and sea level rise – up to 26 million people from coastal regions in Bangladesh, 73 million people in China and 20 million in India. By 2050, refugees from environmental causes could exceed all others by a factor of six, although it is difficult to disentangle environmental from many other causal variables.

Sea-level rise, more frequent storm surges and other climatic factors with the potential to stimulate migration may increase gradually over the course of many decades, allowing affected countries to make adjustments and to ameliorate the effects. Government capacity will therefore be a critical determinant of the ability of societies to adapt and avoid climate induced political disturbances and population movements. Most migrations are likely to be internal, rather than transnational, in keeping with contemporary trends. Climate induced migration is set to play out in three distinct ways. First, people will move out in response to a deteriorating environment, creating new or repetitive patterns of migration, especially in developing states. Secondly, there will be increasing short-term population dislocations due to particular climate stimuli such as severe cyclones or major flooding. Thirdly, large scale population movements are possible that build up more slowly but gain momentum as adverse shifts in climate interact with other migration drivers such as political disturbances, military conflict, ecological stress and socio-economic change.

What can Australia do? Some speculative ideas

Unfortunately there has been no comprehensive analysis of the number of people likely to be displaced as a result of climatic factors, particularly sea-level rises of the order predicted by the IPCC. Most displaced persons will probably seek refuge within the boundaries of their native countries or in neighbouring states with similar ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Experience of the tsunami which devastated the Indonesian province of Aceh in early 2005 suggests that survivors may not have the physical resources or mental resolve to move very far away from their homes.

It remains to be seen whether we would adopt a continuing “fortress Australia” policy towards an increasing flood of refugees, or whether we will welcome our fair share of enforced migrants as part of an international co-operative response to the disaster. Australia and New Zealand surely have a moral responsibility to accept refugees from Pacific Islands inundated by rising sea levels. Their combined population is relatively small – in the region of 150,000, and some of them – from Tokelaua and Tuvalu already have negotiated rights to enter New Zealand, and Marshallese can settle in the United States. Only the inhabitants of Kiribati (population 78,000) have no real migration options, and may seek entry into Australia or New Zealand.

A worst case scenario would occur from abrupt climate change, if greenhouse gas emissions exceeded IPCC predictions through massive escape of CO2 and methane from Arctic tundra, if oceans and forests became CO2 emitters rather than CO2 sinks, and if the West Antarctic ice shelf were to dissolve into the ocean, resulting in sudden rise in sea levels. In that event it is probable that there will be massive mortality around the Pacific Basin, either directly or indirectly via food deprivation, infectious diseases or human conflict. Increased mortality rates may lead to population stabilisation or decline, which would reduce global pressures for resources. But there might then be tremendous pressure for boat migration to Northern Australia from the many millions of inhabitants along the Pacific rim, posing a security, resource and public health nightmare for adaptation, particularly since Australia’s own food supplies may be compromised by drought in the southern states.

A positive spin on catastrophe

Throughout its evolutionary history, Homo sapiens has survived as a species because of its capacity for adaptability, through disasters such as previous ice ages, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods, famines, droughts and plagues of infectious diseases. The present situation of climate change is unique because of its rapidity and that it is almost certainly human-induced, through a combination of profligate combustion of ancient solar capital stored as fossil fuels and the widespread destruction of photosynthetic carbon “sinks”. Because continuing climate change is inevitable, the best we can do in mitigation is to minimise the chances of long-term future catastrophe by urgently adopting a low carbon economy, and to take steps to adapt to the outcomes of global warming.

As a nation of migrants, Australia has an interesting history of successful cultural adaptations over the past two centuries, starting with involuntary and later voluntary intake of British migrants from the late 18th century and the shameful neglect of indigenous Aboriginal culture. During the Victorian Gold Rush at Ballarat in the mid-nineteenth century, co-operative working arrangements were achieved between the local Aboriginal community, white settlers and the large intake of Chinese migrant miners. After the Gold Rush, many Chinese miners moved to the Melbourne district where they established successful market gardens, and their descendants are useful contributors to the Australian economy. Between the two World Wars, there was a large influx of German and Austrian migrants to South Australia, where they developed a flourishing wine industry, while the post-war intake of Greek and Italian migrants to Victoria is an important milestone in the recognition of Australia as a multicultural society, as was the influx of workers from Eastern Europe in construction of the Snowy Mountains hydroelectric scheme. Over the past few decades, migration of Middle Eastern people, many of them refugees, have made a valuable contribution to multiculturism, albeit sometimes controversial. The message here is the need for a change in mindset from regarding environmental refugees with hostility, as competitors for resources, towards welcoming their skills, resourcefulness and experience to help Australia adapt to the difficult times of climate change ahead.

A vision for Northern Australia

The prospect of arrival of many boatloads of environmental refugees in the Northern Territory would present formidable ethical, resource, housing, public health, security and social challenges which might at first sight seem unsurmountable. It may well be that the primary function of Australia’s Defence Force would change from fighting wars overseas to providing massive logistic support for re-settlement, both for displaced Australians and climate refugees, as they did so successfully following the 1973 Darwin cyclone.

CSIRO scenarios for climate change in Australia predict diminished rainfall for southern and southwest Australia, with possibly more rainfall in northern regions (5). This may improve the potential for growing irrigated rice and vegetables in locations such as the Ord river, which may be an attractive proposition for migrants with many generations of horticultural experience settling in the Northern territory. They could provide an economically viable base for both local food production and export of food to southern states via the Darwin-Adelaide railway.

The viability of any large scale migrant settlement will depend on a reliable base load source of energy. Fossil fuels are not the answer because of the twin perils of an enhanced greenhouse effect and peak oil. An expanding migrant population in northern Australia would provide a unique opportunity to build an ecologically and economically sustainable community. Hermann Scheer, a physicist, member of the German Bundestag (parliament) and General Chairman of the World Council for Renewable Energy has published a book entitled Energy autonomy – the economic, social and technological case for renewable energy (6). Scheer has calculated “100 per cent scenarios” for energy supply with renewable energy for Western Europe, the United States and Japan by mid-century, given the social and political will. With its abundant sunshine and other natural resources, Australia should be no exception to these scenarios.

The sun delivers to the Earth 15,000 times more energy than is currently generated by fossil and nuclear fuels combined. One example of how this can be harvested is by concentrated solar power (CSP), by which large mirrors concentrate the sun’s rays to drive conventional steam turbines around the clock. German scientists Gerhard Knies and Franz Tieb calculate that covering just 0.5 per cent of the Earth’s hot deserts with CSP technology could provide the world’s entire electricity needs, with water desalination, horticultural potential and air-conditioning for nearby settlements as valuable by-products, and with virtually no greenhouse gas emissions. The calculated instalment cost is US$50 per oil barrel equivalent, which is likely to fall to US$20 if production reaches industrial levels, compared with the current price of oil at US$60 per barrel (7). A recent CSIRO report claims that “all Australia’s electricity could be supplied from an area 35×35 km”. CSP has been successfully operating in the Mojave Desert of California for the past 15 years and a plant is currently being constructed near Mildura in Victoria. One of the reasons why renewable energy harvesting is not more generalised is the enormous vested interest in fossil fuel and nuclear fission technologies. Thus, in figures derived from the International Energy Agency, fossil fuel subsidies in 2001 amounted to US$244 billion, compared to US$9 billion for renewable energy – a mere 3.7 per cent of the total. This order of discrepancy is apparent with the present Australian Government, which has been slow to recognise the realities of climate change and its opportunities and responsibilities to mitigate and adapt to its outcomes.

Adaptive potential for a large environmental refugee settlement in Australia

The northwest of Australia has enormous potential to become a model for sustainable adaptation to a large intake of environmental refugees over the coming decades, and indeed through policies which should be urgently initiated for its existing population. In addition to CSP, clean renewable energy can be harvested through wind farms at a cost competitive with so-called “clean coal” technologies, through geothermal energy and as yet untested tidal energy (though this may have adverse environmental consequences). There is a need for radical re-design for houses, cyclone proof, prefabricated from MgO concrete (CO2 friendly), insulated, with a natural ventilation system, vacuum tube solar hot water systems and photovoltaic sliver cell solar generated electricity. Houses should be built atop water tanks, with local grey- and black-water recycling (8).

Health problems for incoming refugees will include mental health problems, increased risks of infectious diseases and malnutrition, for which appropriate public health infrastructure and vaccination measures will be required (2). In addition, there should be free access to family planning clinics to prevent unsustainable population growth.

Whether or not Australia is invaded militarily, it is probable that its population will be predominantly Asian by the end of the century. A best case outcome scenario would be non-conflicting co-operation between old and new cultures, sharing the wisdom of Indigenous, European and Asian peoples to adapt to the exigencies of climate change in a sustainable way, enhancing the quality of life.


(1) Insurance Australia Group, Sustainability Report 2005
(2) McMichael AJ (2007) Climate change and human health – Issues and priorities for adaptive strategies and for the functions of public health. Background paper for: National Summit “Coping with climate change”. (University of Michigan)
(3) Dupont A and Pearman G (2006) Heating up the Planet -Climate change and security. Lowy Institute for International Policy.ISBN 1 921004 22 3.
(4) Myers N (2002) Environmental refugees: a growing phenomenon of the 21st century. Philiosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B357 (1420)
(5) Lowe I (2005) Living in the Hothouse – how global warming affects Australia Scribe Publications Melbourne
(6) Scheer H (2007) Energy Autonomy – The economic, social and technological case for renewable energy Earthscan UK and USA ISBN 13: 978-1-84407-355-9
(7) Mirrors can light up the world. Guardian Weekly, Dec.1, 2006
(8) Wrigley D (2004) Making your home sustainable. Melbourne. Scribe Publications.


I am grateful to Alan Dupont, Graeme Pearman and the Lowy Institute for permission to quote substantially from their book Heating up the planet.

Bryan Furnass