How the environmental crisis is already affecting us and who really bears the consequences

We are all concerned about our future and that of our planet. The many issues related to climate change are known to all of us, but we see them primarily as a problem of the future. We do not necessarily pay primary attention to the acute effects and profound emergencies that the climate crisis is already triggering.

The climate crisis is a very complex problem that is unlikely to be solved quickly. It is an issue that will affect us all. However, the current situation is highly unbalanced and unjust: Those who cause climate change and those who suffer the consequences are two different groups of people.

The Sahel: a major victim of climate change

The acute consequences of climate change are already being felt throughout Africa, especially in the Sahel.[1]In this region, more than 3.5 million people have already been forced to flee their homes due to flooding and desertification, and 24 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance.[2] Due to temperature increases and changes in precipitation, deserts are forming and rivers are overflowing, forcing the local population to flee. These environmental changes are particularly drastic because the economy of these countries relies heavily natural resources. Climate change threatens agriculture, livestock, mining, but also tourism. These are all livelihoods for the resident population whose economic, social and existential security is now constantly threatened by the consequences of climate change. In addition, their status as developing countries complicates the situation. Access to funding, aid and research projects is severely limited and there is a risk of institutional failure due to additional local armed conflicts. The paradox is that Africa is currently experiencing the greatest effects of climate change yet has one of the lowest greenhouse gas emissions.

The Complexity of the concept of ‘Climate Refugees’

Not only in the Sahel, but also in South Asia and Latin America, people are suffering from the effects of climate change. For the population, migration is often the last and only option. These people are mistakenly referred to as ‘climate refugees’. This term is critical because there is no international agreement on the exact definition of it. There is widespread disagreement on who should be considered a climate refugee and how to resolve the crisis. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) favors the wording “persons displaced in the context of disasters and climate change.”[3] The disagreement over the formal definition of ‘climate refugee’ is very problematic, as those who are forced to leave their home due to natural disasters are not officially considered refugees and thus are not protected under international law. International law does not protect them since they are not forced to flee because of their nationality, religion, or political beliefs. As climate change-affected states are often also developing countries who suffer from violent armed conflicts, several issues overlap and make this definition even more difficult. 

What is certain is that the number of climate refugees has risen sharply in recent years and already exceeds that of armed conflict refugees. At this time over 65 million[4] people are affected, creating one of the greatest humanitarian challenges of this century. This issue requires global political coordination and the affected states cannot and should not bear the consequences alone. 

In fear of the impact of migration on Europe and North America, many financial resources are currently being invested in the migration crisis. This short-term solution may placate the problem, but it won’t solve it. In the long term, there is also a need to invest in concrete solutions to climate change and to comply with global agreements on the environment and greenhouse gas emissions. The UNHCR has an important role to play in being responsible for protecting climate refugees, promoting policy coherence in areas of climate change, research, and activities in the field.[5]

An artistic appeal against climate change

In addition to the UNHCR’s commitment, the Coalition for Art and Sustainable Development (COAL) offers another interesting approach. Their goal is to make the acute problem of the climate crisis visible through art. They call on artists to address the issue of climate change and draw attention to it. Art has the unique potential of opening a personal perspective and addressing our feelings through a visual language. It can lead us to further our understanding of the abstract construct of climate change and strengthen our empathy for the fate of many of those affected. Annually, COAL awards a prize to contemporary artists working on environmental issues. In 2019, the prize was awarded to Lena Dobrowolska and Teo Ormond-Skeaping for their work “You never know, one day you too may become a refugee.” It addresses migration policies in Uganda. The country, which has one of the highest poverty rates in the world but has taken in over 1.3 million refugees is a model for climate refugee policy.[6] In their artistic practice, the artists present a fictional reality of a white middle-class family forced to flee to Africa or South America. In their work, art makes itself apparent as a new tool for educating and raising awareness. They show how art can fight the environmental crisis in a sensitive and peaceful way.


[1] This affects parts of Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon, Sudan and Eritrea.

[2] Climate displacement in the field, Climate Refugees.

[3] Climate change and disaster displacement, UNHCR.

[4] “The Refugees the world barely pays attention to”, NPR, 20th June 2018.

[5] Climate change and disaster displacement, UNHCR.

[6] Coal Prize 2019.

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