New figures released by the ABS last Wednesday reveal that Australia has just seen the largest estimated resident population (ERP) growth since the concept was introduced in 1971.

But despite an influx that Arthur Calwell would be proud of, the record intake of 429,300 overseas migrants over the survey period is small potatoes compared to what we can expect in our future.

The release of this week’s final Garnaut Report coincided with the International Global Carbon Project’s revelation that Australian greenhouse emissions had risen by 2% over the last year. The Garnaut report indicated that if emissions continued without appropriate mitigation, problems such as “future sea-level rises could be much worse than the sea-level rise outcomes (of 26-59cms) projected in the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report.”

According to a 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “Even a one metre sea level rise is likely to affect 200 — 450 million people in the Asia-Pacific region.”

A 2008 background paper on human rights and climate change released by HREOC (now the Australia Human Rights Commission) emphasised that “when mitigation and adaptation strategies are ineffective, the displacement of communities will be the inevitable consequence.” The paper carries on from the 2006 Stern Review which estimates that climate change will turn 200 million people into refugees by 2050.

So what’s our government doing to prepare itself for an influx of environmental refuges, even in numbers far lower than those mentioned above? Is Australia ready? And if not, is it at least on the agenda?

The Greens attempted to raise the issue in June last year and were supported by the Democrats. Senator Kerry Nettle proposed The Migration (Climate refugees) Amendment Bill, with Democrat Senator Andrew Bartlett speaking in support of it:

We have obligations to ensure that, if and when they are affected severely by climate change induced events, or by climate change more broadly, we provide assistance to them — including, if necessary, enabling them to resettle or reside, even on a more temporary basis, within Australia, depending on their circumstances.

But the bill was voted down alongside the 2007 Climate Refugees Visa Bill and the new Labor government is yet to form a coherent policy on the issue. “Australia will continue to work with other countries to respond to the needs of people displaced by environmental factors. The best response, where feasible, is adaptation and well supported internal relocation rather than resettlement,” a spokesperson for Immigration Minister Chris Evans told Crikey.

But what does that actually mean?

Director of the Centre for Immigration and Multicultural at the Australian National University Dr James Jupp told Crikey that many neighbouring islands might be unwilling to bear the brunt of an increased migration intake. “Most Pacific Island states are already in receipt of aid to bolster their economies and (as the destination preferred by Australian officials, those islands) might not welcome more immigrants, at least not without generous resettlement funding from Australia.”

“Australia and New Zealand could easily settle the relatively small numbers from very low lying states if they chose to do so,” Dr Jupp told Crikey.

“As we are now prepared to accept temporary labour migration from the South Pacific it would be generous to allow some to remain in due course if sea levels continue to rise.”

But the low level Pacific islands only amount to a small part of the problem. The HREOC report affirms that increasing rates of desertification in East-Asia, displacement due to more frequent national disasters in South-East-Asia and an exacerbation of pre-existing conflicts across different Asian regions will heighten future migration levels.

Crikey understands that residents from the Pacific islands of Tuvalu and Kiribati are already petitioning the government to assist with the evacuation of their countries.

So far the Rudd government has pledged to provide $150 million from Australia’s international aid budget to “assist our neighbours adapt to the effects of climate change,” but the national government is yet to establish a quota for climate change refugees. How will it respond when climate refugees starting reaching Austalia’s borders?