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My first visit to Indonesia in 1998 was just before the fall of the dictator Suharto. For 30 years he had believed as long as he kept his people fed he could remain in power. Indonesia, having been hit hardest by the Asian economic collapse in 1997, plunged many poor into hunger and the cost and availability of rice contributed to his dramatic downfall. It was a privilege to be there during the ten years that followed and see the uprising and slow birth of a democracy, however flawed. Food of course depends on our climate and with rapid and extreme changes already occurring some people have already been forced to abandon their land. A short France 24 documentary airing this week on their excellent Down to Earth segment highlights the plight of some of these people.

We’re well aware of people fleeing conflict and persecution and the Geneva Refugee Convention (1951) provided some international recognition for such people. But the ravages of climate change were unknown in the 1950s and in the eyes of modern refugee law, climate migrants don’t exist. Some of the people risking their lives in boats to reach Europe are fleeing hunger due to failing rains. Famine also breeds conflict and some migrants have had any food they could lay their hands on commandeered by men with guns. A Bangladeshi farmer Muhammad Punchu explains how the extreme floods at home washed away land and when a group of men demanded his family give up theirs, his father and brother were murdered. He is in Italy seeking asylum but refugee legislation is not on his side. Hunger can be a real catalyst for revolution and some analysts link famine in Syria to the current tragic civil war. It really does not bode well for the near future as it is estimated that by 2050 there could be 200 million people displaced by the environment. If Europe is having trouble figuring out what to do with the migrants now, how will it deal with the increasing humanitarian disaster over the years? Especially when Europe itself will not be immune from the effects of climate change. At a time when we really should be looking at how to share our resources and land more equitably, walls are being built along national borders in many parts of the world. It is claimed today by a former Exxon climate scientist that this company was aware of the damage caused by CO2 to the climate as long ago as 1981, yet according to Greenpeace they poured $30 million into think tanks and researchers promoting climate change denial.

Short-term politics, corporate profit above all else, supported by a public drugged into indifference by rampant consumerism got us here. Only long-term planning, compassion and an awakened civil society can get us out.

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