The Face of Climate Change

Words by Natasha Abeysekera


“But you can’t see climate change victims!” – Overheard

Climate change is neither a new concept nor one without evidentiary basis. Thankfully the aforementioned statement is receiving less critique and speculation than in the past. Nevertheless climate change is still being referred to as ‘the faceless villain’, due in large part to the predominant concern with respect to the environmental foundation of the phenomenon and the unfounded belief that there are no true victims. And so I pose the question: if faceless, whom do the many victims of the disasters fuelled by climate change hold responsible?

When referring to climate change crises there are two broadly discussed categories, natural and conflict related. It is readily recognised that natural disasters have increased in incidence with the ever-worsening effects of global warming1, 2. As a result of these disasters, there has been a substantial increase in the amount of people displaced from their homes3. Despite this fact it is only recently that recognition of such people as refugees has been developed. Environmental refugees have been described as those experiencing transformation to unsuitable environment for occupation4. Estimates suggest that there will be over 200 million environmental refugees by 2050 as a result of the impacts of climate change5. To put that into context, currently more than 550 million people experience chronic shortages of water6 and 135 million people are endangered by desertification7. Both a lack of water and the degradation of ecosystems pose serious threats to human health that causes unsuitable living conditions. Despite the improved recognition of climate change as a whole, the United Nations has yet to recognise those forced to migrate as a result of environmental change as having official refugee status8. Like many situations the line becomes blurred when climate change maybe a precipitating factor in conflict such as in the case of the war in Darfur9, and is now being speculated as a causative agent in the Syrian Civil War10.

The health impacts of climate change have been categorised as primary, secondary and tertiary effects. Socioeconomic disruptions and the subsequent physical and mental health issues that result from climate change are referred to as tertiary impacts of climate health11. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has proposed several links between climate change conflicts. A critical explanation is founded on the basis of resource depletion that then furthers economic instability that may result in large-scale violence12. Another major theory explored by the Stern Review was with respect to forced migration as a result of climate change13. Although evidence supporting these theories is somewhat limited at this stage, there is data demonstrating drought conflicts in low-income regions have been increasing in incidence, which can be exacerbated by climate change14.

As an Australian citizen but foremost as an immigrant, I am proud of Australia as the country I grew up in and am grateful for all the many opportunities with respect to education, living situations and health. However I am shocked and even horrified with Australia’s current position on critical issues, including climate change and refugee policy. The Migration Act deems that without appropriate visas and documentation regardless of the reasoning, asylum seekers must be held in detention until either deportation or granted a visa with no set timeframe limitation15. In two of Australia’s foremost immigration detention centres, Nauru and Manus Island, the latter of which has recently been set for closure, living conditions have been described as inhumane15-20 with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees calling for the immediate transfer of detainees21. Furthermore Australia is one of the world’s highest per-capita emitters22 and climate change policies are often criticised not only as lacking ambition but also as disastrous23. The SUVA Declaration24 that outlines the Pacific Islands concern regarding their future as a result of the impacts of climate change and their call for greater action on the international scale, with a major feature including no new coalmines. A critical situation that drove the formation of this declaration was the current climate regarding Kiribati Island, much like other low-lying island nations, and the rising sea levels causing sinking25. In a statement made at the 70th Session of the United Nations General Assembly by the Prime Minister of Fiji, Commodore Bainimarama outlined plans already being employed to relocate low lying villages already experiencing some of the most severe consequences of climate change. Whilst imploring for further action against climate change in the spirit of peace and humanity, Bainimarama likened the prospective resettlement of the South Pacific Island States to that of “the fleeing conflict in Syria and Iraq”26. Despite being a neighbour to many of the signing countries, including the Cook Islands, Kiribati and Nauru, Australia has rebuffed adoption of the historic declaration.

The current situation regarding climate change is tenuous with political disagreement on action rampant. The 21st Conference of Parties on Climate Change aimed to provide a thorough international agreement on climate change mitigation and adaptation in order to keep global warming below 2oC above pre-industrial levels. Australia not only has an intended nationally determined contribution (INDC) that has been deemed inadequate in reaching the intended target27 but also was ranked third-last in the Climate Change Performance Index28. Moreover independent analysis by the Climate Action Tracker has found that current implemented Australian policy projections would see emissions rising far beyond the 2030 INDC target27. As future health professionals that will be treating those experiencing the effects of climate change, it is our responsibility to be the voice of its seemingly faceless victims.



  1. Sauerborn R, Ebi K. Climate change and natural disasters: integrating science and practice to protect health. Glob. Health Action. 2012;5:1–7.
  2. Moore T. Global warming The good, the bad, the ugly and the efficient. EMBO Rep. 2008; 9(1):41-45.
  3. Hunter L. Migration and Environmental Hazards. Popul Environ. 2011; 26(4):273-302.
  4. El-Hinnawi E. Environmental Refugees. Nairobi: United Nations Environment Programme; 1985.
  5. Myers N. Environmental refugees: a growing phenomenon of the 21st century. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2002;357(1420):609–613.
  6. Gleick P. The world’s water 2000–2001: biennial report on freshwater resources. Washington, D.C., Island Press; 2000.
  7. UNDP. Human Development Report 2000. United Nations Development Program. New York: Oxford University Press; 2000.
  8. UN General Assembly. Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. Geneva: UNHCR; 1951.
  9. Burke M, Miguel E, Satyanath S, Dykema J, Lobell D. Warming increases the risk of civil war in Africa. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2009; 106(49):20670-4.
  10. Gleick P. Water, Drought, Climate Change, and Conflict in Syria. Am Metorol Soc. 2014;6:331-340.
  11. Butler C, Harley D. Primary, secondary and tertiary effects of eco-climatic change: the medical response. Postgrad Med J. 2010; 86:230-234.
  12. McCarthy J, Canziani O, Leary N, Dokken D, White K, editors. Climate Change 2001: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ Press; 2001.
  13. Stern N. The economics of climate change. Stern review. London: HM Treasury; 2006. Available at:
  14. Nyong A, Fiki C, McLeman R. Drought-related conflicts, management and resolution in the West African Sahel: considerations for climate change research. Erde. 2006;137(3):223-248.
  15. Migration Act 1958 (Aus).
  16. Turning back boats [Internet]. Sydney : Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law; 2015 Feb 26 [cited 2016 Jun 13]. Available from:
  17. Christmas Island Medical Officers’. Letter of concern. The Guardian. [Internet]. 13 Jan 2014 [cited 2016 Jun 13]. Available from:
  18. Sanggaran J, Ferguson G, Haire B. Ethical challenges for doctors working in immigration detention. Med J Aust. 2014; 201(7): 377–378.
  19. The Australian Human Rights Commission. The Forgotten Children: National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention 2014 [Internet]. Sydney(AU): Australian Human Rights Commission; 2014 [cited 2016 Jun 13]. 324 p. Available from:
  20. Jabour B, Farrell P, Evershed N. Significant risks to health of asylum seekers in firm’s failure to meet targets. The Guardian. [Internet]. 2015 Jul 21. [cited 2016 Jun 13]. Available from:
  21. UNHCR. Calls for Immediate Movement of Refugees and Asylum-Seekers to Humane Conditions. UNHCR: Canberra; 2016. Available from:
  22. Next 10. Green Innovation Index. California(US); 2016. 102 p. Available from:
  23. UNFCCC. Session SBI42. UNFCCC: Geneva; 2015. Available from:
  24. Suva Declaration on climate change. Suva: Pacific Island Development Forum Secretariat, 2015. Available from: [cited 2016 Jun 13].
  25. Schmidt C. Keeping Afloat: A Strategy for Small Island Nations. Environ Health Perspect. 2005; 113(9):606-609.
  26. United Nations, General Assembly, Statement by the Hon. Prime Minister JV Bainimarama at the 70th Session, 30 September 2015, Available from:
  27. Climate Action Tracker. Australia [Internet]. 2015 [cited 2016 Jun 13]. Available from:
  28. Climate Action Network. The Climate Change Performance Index: Results 2016. [cited 2016 Jun 13]. Available from:

Comments are closed.