But where will the Polar Bears Go? Climate Change, Refugees, and the role of UNHCR- Kate Cornman

Every year, large swaths of Arctic Sea ice shrink in the northern ocean displacing polar bears. Similarly every year, between 12 and 45 million people are displaced by sudden onset disasters . In each scenario, climate change has been the culprit. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has been faced with this challenge of refugee legality and authorization and have tried to address the issue of climate change refugees without formal modification of international law. Climate change refugees need assistance but aren’t protected under international law. The UNHCR claims to have them protected under conditionality clauses, however, there is no clearly devised plan on the future of climate change refugees. Not only does the future lead to the extinction of the classic Polar Bear Coca-Cola ads during the holiday season- but also the depletion of natural resources, disappearance of territory such as small island States, and the increase of citizens being deemed “stateless.” Legal and operational gaps surrounding climate Change must be filled not only by UNHCR but other horizontal organizations concerned with the migration of people. Climate change refugees, including the polar bears, are and will continue to be a major concern for the future of global governance.

As Alexander Betts describes, UNHCR was created to support states in the provision of protection and solutions to refugees. According to Betts, the pressure to change will not be on state-by-state process. Instead, structural concerns such as remaining competitive in the realm of international organizations and the leadership of the organization will continue to be a driving force to the adaption of international organizations such as UNHCR. This will affect the timeliness and effectiveness of the mandates they will create.

The term “Climate change” gets tossed around the political table tremendously. Specifically António Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, states that climate change will for certain have a major impact on future patterns of human mobility. But climate change will affect not only the physical environment but also the cooperation of peoples around the word. “What we need is holistic, comprehensive approaches that take into account the conflict dimension,” Guterres explains after concluding that climate change will force peoples to travel for resources which has adverse affects on regional hostilities as well as cross boarder issues. These issues are linked with climate change and should be addressed at the macro level.

Climate change is already undermining the livelihoods and security of many people. Climate change refugees should be helped, but the UNHCR needs to take an active role in trying to provide the state the resources for the future. The UNHCR cannot wait for fire alarms to protect these refugees. They need environmental studies/ climate change experts reviewing the areas in the world where climate change is threatening the most and then the bureaucracy must take action. Communication to with these states is necessary to help them protect their citizens, their land, and their economy. The UNHCR should expand its mandate to include climate change refugees before it is too late for the global community.


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