With more than 11 million hectares of land destroyed and over a billion animals killed, the recent Australian bushfires have undoubtedly exposed the calamitous and irreversible effects of global warming on our planet. Having experienced the country’s hottest year on record in 2019, Australians have been left stranded in a state of uncertainty as extreme temperatures and months of severe drought fuelled blazes of unprecedented levels, destroying over 2,000 homes and pushing thousands to find shelter elsewhere.
The effects of this climate crisis have devastating consequences for human displacement, with many residents now considered ‘climate refugees’.
Climate refugees are defined as people who have been forced to leave their homes due to environmental factors caused by natural disasters and climate change. Since 2008, 26.4 million people worldwide have been forcibly displaced due to weather events including floods, earthquakes and droughts. The driving force behind these disasters is human activity, with experts attributing approximately 1C of global warming above pre-industrial levels to fossil fuel production and other massive-scale extractions.
The effects of climate change are disproportionately unforgiving, with those most affected being the poorest who live in remote areas. According to the 2019 Global Climate Risk Index, eight of the ten countries most affected by extreme environmental conditions between 1998 and 2017 were developing nations. For the 2.5 billion smallholder farmers and fishers who are dependent on natural resources and climate for food and income, environmental disasters and unstable weather patterns threaten the chance of a future without dependency on humanitarian aid. By 2030, around 325 million extremely poor people are estimated to be living in the 49 most hazard-prone countries, the majority of which are in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.
In Australia, it is the Aborigines who will continue to suffer under the shadow of colonial legacy. The dispossession of indigenous lands and resources – at the expense of practices such as greenhouse gas production – has left their community fighting to control severe bushfire damage while continually battling widespread social exclusion, political uncertainty and racism. With land significantly shaping the cultural identity of Aboriginal people, the climate crisis puts their very existence at jeopardy – despite their ways of life being among the least damaging to the Earth’s environment.
Capitalism, consumerism and human greed are the overwhelming catalysts to our climate crisis, with just 100 companies contributing more than 70 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1988. Australia is the fourth-largest producer of coal in the world and accounts for 1.3 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Valued at $46 billion in 2018, coal is Australia’s most valuable export, placing the country as one of the world’s biggest profiteers from the burning of fossil fuels. Despite this, Australian prime minster Scott Morrison has said the country does not need to do more to limit its greenhouse gas emissions.
Exacerbating the injustice faced by poorer and more vulnerable individuals is Australia’s hostility towards refugees and asylum seekers, including those displaced by climate factors. The country’s brutal immigration policy prohibits the acceptance of any asylum seeker who has arrived in Australia by boat. Between 1976-2015, more than 69,600 people seeking asylum took this mode of transport; the majority of whom had no possible alternative due to fleeing war, persecution and environmental disasters.
Comparatively, it is developing countries such as Uganda and Ethiopia which outrank the efforts of the developed ones, enforcing policies to help protect asylum seekers and refugees despite the significant disparities in wealth and responsibility.
Australia’s offshore detention centres, created as part of ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’, further expose disregard for the lives of desperate refugees, who are shipped to the islands of Manus and the Republic of Nauru, detained and ultimately, neglected. Since the offshore processing began in 2013, 3,127 people have been detained on these islands, with 541 ‘voluntarily’ returning to their country of origin and 619 departing to the US. According to a UNICEF report, the cost of onshore and offshore detention and the enforcement of military intervention stood at an extortionate level of $9.6 billion between 2013 and 2016.
While powerful political leaders such as Australia’s prime minister continue to defend the fossil fuel industry, the disastrous effects of climate change will continue to override the efforts of other countries in suppressing involuntary displacement. Climate refugees are being let down by the very people who are supposed to protect them – the richest, the most developed and most significantly, the biggest contributors to climate change.
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