for National Geographic News
Environmental degradation around the world is creating a new category of people known as "environmental refugees," a United Nations group says.
What's more, the refugees' ranks are growing rapidly.
There are at least 20 million environmental refugees worldwide, the group saysmore than those displaced by war and political repression combined.
"More and more people live in more and more vulnerable circumstances," said Anthony Oliver-Smith, a University of Florida anthropologist who is a member of the UN group. "When disaster hits, their ability to rebuild will be minimal, and they are forced to leave."
Oliver-Smith is with the Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS), a group of experts affiliated with the United Nations University in Bonn, Germany, that is studying the issue.
By 2010 the number of environmental refugees could grow to 50 million, the UNU-EHS predicts. According to other estimates, there could be as many as 150 million by 2050.
That's why nations and aid groups urgently need to recognize and help this new category of refugee, UNU-EHS says.
But helping them first requires a clear definition of what exactly constitutes an environmental refugee.
"How you define somebody can be an issue of life and death for them," Oliver-Smith said.
Global Warming Refugees?
Environmental catastrophes like the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami or Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans can uproot millions of people almost in an instant.
But many other people are displaced by gradual environmental shifts, many of which may be linked to climate changesuch as desertification, diminishing water supplies, and rising sea levels.
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