ROME — The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) warned Thursday that migrants and refugees are threatened by the twin menaces of climate change and the coronavirus.
“Climate change and COVID-19 have increased the vulnerability of refugees and displaced communities,” UNHCR said on Twitter.
Fighting climate change demands the “same level of ambition” required to fight the coronavirus pandemic, said Andrew Harper, UNHCR Special Advisor on Climate Action, in a video embedded in the tweet.
“The science is clear. We are seeing an increase in desertification. We’re seeing an increase in rising sea levels,” Mr. Harper said. “This is causing more challenges for people to survive.”
Because of climate change, “people will be forced to move; there will be increased tensions. There will be increasing conflict. And unfortunately, we’re likely to see an increase in numbers of people forcibly displaced,” he added.
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Harper acknowledges that the category of “climate refugees” doesn’t exist under international law, he insists that it captures “the urgency and vulnerability of populations and the need to act on behalf of those people who have been forced to flee.”
“It’s not possible to truly pin down the number of people displaced by climate,” Harper notes, for the simple reason that “climate alone does not displace people on its own.”
Harper proposes that “COVID-19 is adding an additional layer of vulnerability to displaced populations,” since those areas “often already have quite weak health systems and those health systems are under additional pressure.”
“We need to be having the same level of ambition, the same level of solidarity towards addressing climate change as well as what we’re seeing in relation to COVID,” he insists.
“And unfortunately with climate change you can’t put on a mask and there is no vaccine for it,” he adds.
The United Nations is not alone in tying together the coronavirus pandemic and climate change as closely related threats that require a coordinated response.
Last March, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) similarly proposed that we must address the climate change crisis with the same urgency as the Chinese coronavirus pandemic.
Sanders criticized Joe Biden’s plan to address climate change during an early presidential debate, arguing that it was not ambitious enough. The senator said that his sense of urgency on climate change resembled the world’s reaction to the imminent threat of the coronavirus.
In August, the Vatican released a joint document with the World Council of Churches (WCC) calling for greater attention to climate change in “a post-COVID-19 world.”
“The human misery associated with the COVID-19 pandemic is taking place amid the broader context of the suffering of this planet,” the text declared.
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The coronavirus health crisis can be seen as “a harbinger of future crises relating to climate change and the assault on biodiversity,” the document stated. “We urgently need an ecological conversion of attitudes and actions to care more effectively for our world, paying attention to the groaning of the creation.”
According to the Vatican website, the document was meant to offer “a Christian basis for interreligious solidarity that can inspire and confirm the impulse to serve a world wounded not only by COVID-19 but also by many other wounds.”
Pope Francis himself has said he believes the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic is “nature’s response” to humanity’s failure to address the “partial catastrophes” wrought by human-induced climate change.
“We did not respond to the partial catastrophes. Who now speaks of the fires in Australia, or remembers that a year and a half ago a boat could cross the North Pole because the glaciers had all melted? Who speaks now of the floods?” the pontiff asked in an interview last April.
“I don’t know if it is nature’s revenge, but it is certainly nature’s response,” he added.
Asked in a separate interview how to interpret the COVID-19 pandemic, the pope suggested that nature is calling out for attention.
“Fires, earthquakes … nature is throwing a tantrum so that we will take care of her,” he said.