When large segments of populations are displaced by natural or man-made disasters, people become separated from time-honored roots of language, culture, and social bonds. As a result, displaced peoples are forced to create new social and economic relations in the areas to which they re-locate, as well as change existing social dynamics in the receiving society. As the 21st century progresses, the effects of climate change, environmental degradation, and growing economic inequality dramatically increases the potential for displacement and social conflicts in vulnerable regions all over the globe. Unfortunately, while much attention is focused on the science surrounding climate change and other environmental crises, neither social scientists nor policymakers seem to be adequately examining the sociological and political implications of the increased, sudden migrations that are emerging as a result of rapid environmental change. It is critical to do so, for socioeconomic conditions are interlinked with environmental factors, determining the composition, dynamics, and consequences of "environmental refugee" movements. Because of its sheer complexity, it is necessary to employ an interdisciplinary approach to analyze or formulate possible solutions to the problem. Sociological perspectives need to be added to the dialogue that is beginning to form around this vital issue. This paper will attempt to examine the definition, scope and urgency of the problem, and demonstrate the need for more sociological attention and research in this area.
The notion of "environmental refugees" is relatively new and subject to debate among demographers and social scientists, and as such, there seems to be no universally accepted definition of the term. In 1985, Essam El-Hinnawi of the United Nations Environmental Programme was the first to come up with a working definition of "environmental refugees," stating that "all displaced people can be described as environmental refugees, having been forced to leave their original habitat (or having left voluntarily) to protect themselves from harm and/or to seek a better quality of life" (El-Hinnawi, 1985).