The second installment of the UN’s IPCC report on climate change paints a bleak picture of environmental devastation for Australia, but buried among  the grim statistics is a reference to a slightly alarming number: 200-450 million potential, climate-change refugees that make 83 Sri Lankans look like a drop in the ocean.

The draft IPCC report that Crikey has obtained states that population growth and a one-metre rise in the sea level are “likely to affect 200-450 million people in the Asia-Pacific region…”

Back in 2001, tiny (and slowly sinking)  Tuvalu put in a formal request to New Zealand and Australia to accept more of its nationals. Wellington said yes, but Australia’s then Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock said no. As The Guardian reported back in 2001, Ruddock said:

It is not, at the moment, an issue in which the population of those countries are at risk. They have to meet the normal migration criteria that apply to anybody in the world, who wants to come to Australia.

Almost six years on, and the IPCC report argues that the populations of those countries could meet the “normal migration criteria” in much bigger numbers than the Government would like to acknowledge. The report states:

In the Asia-Pacific region, adverse effects on food, disease, water energy and coastal settlements are likely (Dupont and Pearman, 2006), but implications for immigration and security in Australia and New Zealand are poorly understood.

Climate change may contribute to destabilising unregulated population movements in the Asia-Pacific region, providing an additional challenge to national security (Dupont and Pearman, 2006; Preston et al., 2006). Population growth and a one-metre rise in sea level are likely to affect 200-450 million people in the Asia-Pacific region (Mimura, 2006). An increase in migrations from the Asia-Pacific region to surrounding nations such as New Zealand and Australia is possible (Woodward et al., 2001).

While the Government fast-tracks the construction of the Christmas Island detention centre, capacity approximately 800, the possible enormous influx of environmental refugees in the future remains the elephant in the room. Take this Four Corners interview from last year’s ‘Greenhouse Mafia’ report:

JANINE COHEN: Kevin Hennessy is the coordinator of the CSIRO’s Climate Impact Group. One of his jobs is to talk about the potential impacts of climate change. But there are some likely impacts of climate change that are clearly a no-go zone. Some scientists believe that there’ll be more environmental refugees. Is that a possibility?

KEVIN HENNESSY, CSIRO IMPACT GROUP: I can’t really comment on that.

JANINE COHEN: Why can’t you comment on that?

KH: That’s, that’s, er… No, I can’t comment on that.

JC: Is that part of editorial policy? You can’t comment on things that affect immigration?

KH:  No, I can’t comment on that.

JC: Can I just ask you why you can’t comment?

KH: Not on camera.

After reading the IPCC draft, Environment Minister Malcolm Turnbull told The 7.30 Report  that he’s “in favour of being alert but not alarmed”. Crikey understands that to date the Government has not devoted any research or planning to the possible influx of refugees as a result of global warming.

Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews’ spokeswoman Kate Walshe told Crikey:

In the event of environmental conditions in certain Pacific states reaching disaster proportions, Australia would play a major part in any international response. In the 2006/07 Federal Budget the Government announced a new Australia Pacific Technical College which will deliver training and Australian standard qualifications to Pacific Islanders to increasingly integrate the Pacific with the global economy… The Pacific Technical College will expand the skills base of the Pacific states with flow on developmental and economic benefits for the Pacific. It will also result in enhanced options for both temporary employment in and permanent migration to Australia.

But Greens Senator Kerry Nettle told Crikey: “There is no planning being done, none by DIAC and there doesn’t seem to be any planning by Foreign Affairs. The Government talk about it as a future issue, not as something that needs to be prepared or planned for.”

Senator Nettle, who has questioned the Department of Immigration and the Department of Foreign Affairs about this issue, told Crikey: “NZ has a program in place for dealing with this issue and have been actively been dealing with it. They took 75 people from Tuvalu this year and 75 from Kiribati. We don’t even have a program, we don’t have the government planning or setting up a system for the future. Our only response is ‘well, we’ll wait’. ”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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