Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Climate Change and Environmental Refugees

Dear Editor,

As I was reading the section on global climate change in The Reporter’s Environmental Handbook, I found myself drawn to all the issues that are tied to climate change and the approaches have been used or are currently being used to address those problems. 

I am particularly interested in the changes we’ll see in human populations and how we adapt to global climate change within this century. A short paragraph in The Reporter’s Environmental Handbook on population migrations due to climate change caught my eye. There is a term for these people that I have learned during my time as a college student called “environmental refugees.” These populations had to leave their homes because of sea level rise, agricultural failure, and drought. People may move on a small scale to another area within their country or on a much larger scale to another part of the world to escape difficulties due to climate change.

At the end of January as part of the “Lesson of Sustainability: The Expert Practitioners Series” at Ramapo College, a representative from the Maldives came to speak about the background and political history of Maldives and how climate change is changing the livelihood of the Maldivian people. Her name is Thilmeeza Hussain. When I first came in to listen to Ms. Hussain’s presentation, I was expecting to see the same patterns of issues that a country of low-lying islands would experience as other low-lying countries would experience in real time.

Interesting too, because the reading mentioned that Maldives was one of the ten most vulnerable countries to rising sea levels, according to The United Nations Environment Program. Then she started talking about the political history of the country: how the country was under a certain religious rule thousands of years ago, how the people were oppressed by a dictatorship that disguised itself as a democracy for decades, how its citizens fought to gain a legitimate democracy – only for it to be short-lived because political leaders were still under dictator influence and so Maldives became a dictatorship once again. I thought to myself, “wait, that doesn’t have anything to do with the environment or climate change.”

It actually does. While the country was in dictatorship, people were already experiencing the effects of climate change. They had to migrate to other islands because they found themselves in water inside their homes. The leader at the time did not pay much attention to that detail or why it’s happening. When democracy came into play for that short time, President Nasheet launched environmental campaigns to help Maldivians to adapt to these changes and called out to the world that Maldives needs help. After President Nasheet was forced to step down from his position, the population was silenced from speaking about their problems, including climate change.

The livelihood of environmental refugees is an important issue to consider, because while we see populations already making their move we can only expect more to seek refuge from their once habitable homes in the near future. And with countries that are oppressed from speaking out that they need international assistance, their people and culture may be unable to take refuge elsewhere and worse – may soon cease to exist.

Kristen Andrada
Ramapo College Environmental Studies Undergraduate

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