OSLO (Reuters) - The world must invent new ways to protect people driven from their homes by climate change without copying safeguards for those uprooted by wars or persecution, the head of the U.N. refugee agency said on Monday.
"There is a protection gap in the international system that needs to be addressed," United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres told Reuters during a conference in Oslo on climate change and displaced people.
Guterres said that people moving to escape the impacts of floods, droughts or storms needed different types of support from that enshrined in a 1951 U.N. refugee convention for victims of conflicts or political oppression.
"We must now reconsider our approach" to help people uprooted by global warming, he said in a speech, adding that he considered environmental degradation and climate change to be "the defining challenge of our times."
People in rural areas of Africa whose crops failed, for instance, were likely to move to a city in their home country rather than cross a border to seek shelter in a refugee camp run by the UNHCR.
For people staying in the same country "it makes no sense" to set up camps with separate medical and water services, Guterres said. More appropriate would be local plans to cope with an influx to urban areas.
"Primary responsibility for the protection and well-being of affected populations will ... rest with the states concerned," he said.
Durations can differ with the two kinds of displacements, as those who flee natural disasters like floods may be able to return quickly -- an option rarely available to other refugees.
Guterres urged a "massive program of support" for nations most affected by natural disasters, both related to global warming stoked by human burning of fossil fuels and to natural hazards such as earthquakes or tsunamis.
The UNHCR had "refused to embrace the new terminology of 'climate refugees' or 'environmental refugees', fearing that this would complicate and confuse the organization's efforts to protect the victims of persecution and armed conflict," he said.
He suggested a "global guiding framework" to set standards for the temporary protection and treatment of people driven across borders by climate change and natural disasters.
In 2010, 42 million people were forced from their homes by natural disasters, led by storms and floods in China and Pakistan, according to a report by the Norwegian Refugee Council's Geneva-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Center.
The number, almost equivalent to the population of Spain, compared with 17 million in 2009 and 36 million in 2008 when monitoring began. It focused on sudden disasters, from hurricanes to volcanic eruptions, and excluded slow-moving events such as droughts.
It did not try to work out if global warming was a factor over the three years but said that climate change was likely to raise the numbers this century.
Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere said climate change was amplifying the impact of calamities.
"Natural disasters are becoming more disastrous. Livelihoods are eroding faster. Larger numbers of people are being forced to move," he said in a speech.
For Reuters latest environment blogs, click on: blogs.reuters.com/environment/