Climate Refugees

Glossary of Terms

Climate crisis vs. climate change

This report favors the term “climate crisis” over “climate change” to emphasize the urgent and extreme nature and impacts of the dramatic increase of Earth’s temperature as a result of human activity. Climate change is still used in some parts of the report depending on context. Although the Earth’s climate has changed throughout history, the current warming trend is of particular significance because most of it is extremely likely (greater than 95 percent probability) to be the result of human activity since the mid-twentieth century and proceeding at a rate that is unprecedented over decades to millennia.1

Climate refugee

This report defines climate refugees as individuals who are forcibly displaced (within or beyond their nation-state boundaries) by short- and long-term natural disasters and environmental degradation precipitated or exacerbated by the climate crisis. Such short-term disasters consist of typhoons, hurricanes, wildfires, and tsunamis, while long-term environmental changes include desertification, deforestation, rising temperatures, and rising sea levels, among others.

Climate refugee vs. environmental refugee

While the terms “climate refugee” and “environmental refugee” have been used interchangeably, this report utilizes the term “climate refugee” to draw attention to the social, economic, and political forces that contribute to and exacerbate global warming, and that govern the movement and resettlement of displaced persons.

Climate refugee vs. climate migrant 

Refugees and migrants are entitled to the same universal human rights and fundamental freedoms, which must be respected, protected, and fulfilled at all times. However, migrants and refugees are distinct groups governed by separate legal frameworks. Only refugees are entitled to the specific international protection as defined by international refugee law. Our working definition of “climate refugee” uses the latter term to not only account for climate-induced migration—and the political nature of the climate crisis itself—but to also make the case that such migrants need to be protected under a comprehensive and legally binding framework (whether by revising the 1951 Refugee Convention or developing an altogether new framework).

Disasters and the climate crisis

Adverse weather and biogeophysical events—whether short-term or long-term—become disasters when the event occurs in an area with vulnerable populations and either exacerbates, or is a leading cause of, human, economic, material, societal, and environmental loss. Disasters under the climate crisis are hardly “natural,” given that such events are precipitated or exacerbated by humans, and given that the disproportionate vulnerability to such events and their impact is in part a result of the current international political and economic system.

Environmental change

Change or disturbances in the environment are most often caused by human influences and natural ecological processes. Environmental changes can include any number of things, including natural disasters, human interferences, or animal interaction.

Environmental degradation

The deterioration of the environment through depletion of resources such as air, water, and soil; the destruction of ecosystems; habitat destruction; the extinction of wildlife; and pollution.

Food refugee

An individual or community forcibly displaced due to growing food insecurity caused by foreign military intervention, armed conflict, political and civil unrest, and/or environmental challenges, as well as circumstances perpetuated by land grabs, seed monopolies, natural resource grabs, global warming, the increased commodification of food, and structures and arrangements of international free trade agreements.

Food refugee vs. climate refugee

Food insecurity is one of the consequences of short- and long-term natural disasters precipitated or exacerbated by the climate crisis. At the same time, the current international political and economic system would continue to create food refugees in the world even if it were not experiencing a climate crisis. To better account for how food insecurity can be the proximate cause of mass displacement through interaction with a host of other dynamics, including the climate crisis, this report asserts that “food refugees” need to be recognized and protected as a distinct category—neither subsumed within the category of “climate refugees” nor entirely analogous to it. 

Petro-persecution

A new deterritorialized understanding of “persecution” under the climate crisis, which accounts for the ability of one to survive and avail themselves of a sufficient degree of protection within their country of origin. It does so while recognizing that the “actors” of persecution and the respective climate crisis impacts are fundamentally indeterminable. Although the climate has entered crisis mode due to a number of sources, the term highlights the “persecution” that is built into our global dependence on petroleum, coal, natural gas, and other fossil fuels, and the global investment patterns behind this dependence. 

  • 1. “Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) Synthesis Report: Climate Change 2014” (Geneva, Switzerland: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2014).