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The United Nations University (UNU) is the academic arm of the United Nations (UN). It bridges the academic world and the UN system. Its goal is to develop sustainable solutions for current and future problems of humankind in all aspects of life. Through a problem-oriented and interdisciplinary approach it aims at applied research and education on a global scale. UNU was founded in 1973 and is an autonomous organ of the UN General Assembly. The University comprises headquarters Tokyo, Japan, and more than a dozen Institutes and Programmes worldwide.

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UNU-EHS Expert Explains Environmentally Induced Migration on Special Podcast

During an interview, Dr Koko Warner, Head of Environmental Migration, Social Vulnerability & Adaptation Section at UNU-EHS, explained the term “environmentally induced migrant” and confirmed that climate change is happening right now.

“Climate change is real; we’ve always had climate change. What is different now is the rate of climate change and the role people play in it,” said Dr Warner to the International Relations and Security Network.

Listen to Dr Koko Warner's full interview in English .

She explained that people who are forced to leave their homes and living spaces are commonly referred to as “climate refugees” by the public, although currently, they are not defined as such legally.

Persons on the Move

Since the word refugee is a legal term, Dr Warner and other researchers prefer a different expression: “We are researchers, not lawyers; we don’t use the term climate refugee. We adopted the working term “environmentally induced migrants”. These are persons on the move, either for immediate life threatening reasons or because the environment has deteriorated their livelihoods so much that they can no longer support themselves,” she explained.

It might be difficult to define the correct term; fact is that “there are climate refugees today, in the magnitude of millions,” said Dr Warner, which she illustrated with the fact that experts expect up to 50 million environmentally induced migrants by the year 2010 and that some predict up to 647 million by the year 2050.

But how can we know that environmental refugees are the result of possible climate change? Dr Warner admitted that with no exact definitions of either of the phenomena, measuring the scale of climate change and estimating the numbers of affected people is “a scientific challenge.”

Exchange between Countries

Action is needed to help people being affected by climate change. Dr Warner explained: “The rate of change is extremely threatening. In the next 30 to 40 years with a sea level rise of one meter, the existence of about 40 sovereign states, island states, will be threatened.”

The dangers are real. However, Dr Warner declared that “there is not so much exchange between countries on how to deal with the resettlement of people.” She said that so far only a few countries have experience in resettling programmes, naming Mozambique, Vietnam, China, Argentina, Brazil, Pacific Islands, and the Maldives.

When it comes to finding sustainable solutions that ensure the survival of people who had to move because of environmental changes, she said that "it’s a very early time in the conversation.”