Preparing for the climate displaced, both rich and poor

Human displacement. Climate change. Two of the world’s leading causes of concern for humanitarians, environmentalists and the public at large alike. But what is even more concerning is that the two are inextricably linked – a growing global problem that researchers have now coined ‘climate displacement’.

According to the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees, the global scale of climate displacement is expected to dwarf today’s levels of displacement, which UNHCR recently announced are higher than at any time since the end of the Second World War.

But the mass human displacement expected to be caused by climate change can be prevented – and repaired – through policies focusing on ensuring access to land for those affected.

Land-based policy solutions

Through research and fieldwork in more than a dozen frontline countries already grappling with climate displacement including Bangladesh, Fiji, Kiribati, Panama, Papua New Guinea, and Tuvalu it has been found that a four-step approach to climate displacement could best serve the needs of the displaced and work to mitigate the potential tragedy of mass climate displacement worldwide.

National and international land acquisition, planned and voluntary relocation, creating new national agencies and expanding political will, if implemented properly, can greatly reduce both the scale and suffering associated with this new form of coerced movement.

New research revealed that anywhere between 12.5 million to 50 million acres of land is a reasonable estimate of the physical amount of land that would be required to provide various land-based solutions to the world's climate displaced population, basing calculations on mid-level estimates of projected climate displacement of 250,000,000, assuming an average household size of five persons and further assuming an average land requirement of one acre per household.

In essence, land equivalent to the size of Victoria or the country of Uganda at the high end scale (+/- 50 million acres), or land the size of Tasmania or the country Costa Rica (12.5 million acres) at the low end to provide land resources for all of the world's climate displaced populations.

Far from running out of land, the world still has more than enough available land to provide for the needs of those facing and living with climate displacement.

Taking the initial high estimate of one acre per household reveals that all that is required is the equivalent of 1/736th of the landmass of planet Earth, a mere 0.14 per cent of our planet's surface would facilitate rights-based solutions to climate displacement.

Using the second scenario (one-quarter of an acre per household), the equivalent of 1/2944th of the Earth's land surface, or 0.03 per cent of the world's land surface would be required.

The Australian context

Given that Australia is already facing the first signs of climate displacement in the Torres Strait, as well as along various sections of coastline in NSW, Victoria and Queensland, the issue of climate displacement is particularly pertinent particularly as Australia’s climate change policy under the Abbott Government has been widely criticised across the globe.

Criticism includes Australia and its government being out of touch with other developed countries and is seen as heavily influenced by conservative voices critical of climate change action despite Australia being the developed country geographically closest to more frontline states already grappling with climate displacement – PNG, Solomon Islands, Kiribati, Marshall Islands.

In the case of New South Wales – as is the case with coastal territories throughout the world – the region faces the prospect of considerable displacement due to climate change and rising sea levels.

The NSW government has estimated that up to 65,000 residential properties in NSW with a value of up to $20 billion may be at risk.

According to the NSW department of Environment & Heritage:

The local government areas of Lake Macquarie, Wyong, Gosford, Wollongong, Shoalhaven and Rockdale represent over 50 per cent of the residential buildings at risk in NSW while global sea levels increased by 1.7 millimetres per year over the 20th century. Over the past 15 years, this trend has increased to approximately 3.2 millimetres per year. This rate varies significantly around Australia. Since the early 1990s, NSW has experienced sea level rise of approximately 2.1 millimetres per year.

Essentially, people who are unable to sell their coastal properties and move to safer ground when the day comes will form part of the world's climate displaced population which is expected to reach over 200 million in the coming decades.

Now is the time for government accountability

It is high time governments across the world begin to take this issue seriously and begin planning for how best to tackle climate displacement in a manner that respects the rights of those affected and that ensures they have sustainable access to new land and housing.

Setting aside land now for those requiring new land following the loss of their current land makes good sense, both in economic and human rights terms.

People displaced by climate change need solutions to this displacement, and in the first instance this begins with land and housing.

If governments and communities finally take climate displacement seriously, this is a global crisis that can be prevented, prepared for and ultimately fixed in a way that is affordable, just and consistent with the rights of those affected.

Scott Leckie is an author, international lawyer, academic and the executive director of global NGO Displacement Solutions, which has led international efforts to protect the rights of climate displaced persons. http://displacementsolutions.org/