By Megan Rowling
LONDON, March 13 (Reuters) - The islanders of Tuvalu could lose their homes and much of their land in the coming decades. But the world has yet to figure out how it will deal with them, and millions of others, who may be displaced by climate change.
"It’s a game of political pass-the-parcel," said Andrew Simms, policy director at British think-tank New Economics Foundation. "No one wants to be left holding the problem of climate refugees."
It’s a problem with immediate resonance in the nine tiny Pacific islands that make up Tuvalu.
The group of atolls and reefs is on average barely two metres above sea-level. The United Nations climate panel estimates that oceans will rise by 18-59 cms by 2100.
This, along with environmental degradation, could make large parts of Tuvalu uninhabitable.
Japanese activist and journalist Shuichi Endo has set himself the daunting task of photographing 10,000 Tuvaluans -- nearly the entire population -- in a bid to draw political attention to the threat they face from global warming.
"If industrialised countries like Japan and the United States don’t cut their greenhouse gas emissions, the Tuvaluans won’t be able to carry on living here," Endo said by telephone from Funafuti island, as children laughed in the background.
"Their culture will be lost, the Tuvaluans will no longer exist, and that would be very sad. Here, people live in tune with the natural environment. They don’t emit carbon, and we can learn a lot from them," Endo said.
No one seems to know where the Tuvaluans would go if their islands disappear -- something one study said could happen in just 50 years.
Australia has been approached by the islands’ authorities, but has not agreed to let the 12,000 islanders resettle there. New Zealand accepts 75 Tuvaluans a year under a regional immigration quota, but has no explicit policy to take in people from Pacific island countries due to climate change.
Tuvalu’s plight does not augur well for millions of others -- from Africa’s Sahel region to Bangladesh in south Asia -- who could be forced from their homes by climate change.
"There is a lack of concern about this right now," said Frank Biermann, a professor at Vrije University’s Institute for Environmental Studies in Amsterdam.
"A crisis is unlikely to occur before 2030 or 2040," he said. "But if we don’t want to see people in camps, violence and other nasty consequences, we need to start planning now."
Besides higher sea levels, the U.N. climate panel warns that rising global temperatures -- caused by human activities led by burning fossil fuels -- are likely to bring more droughts, flooding and stronger storms.
Experts predict climate change-related stresses -- including disasters, food and water shortages and conflicts over scarce resources -- could permanently uproot 200 to 250 million people by mid-century.
This week, European Union leaders will be told to prepare for "substantially increased migratory pressure" due to climate change.
A report by EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and the executive European Commission, to be delivered at this week’s summit, says people who already suffer from poor health, unemployment or social exclusion will be hit hardest.
That could amplify or trigger mass migration within and between countries, sparking increased conflicts in transit and destination areas, it warns.
"Some countries that are extremely vulnerable to climate change are already calling for international recognition of such environmentally induced migration," the report says.
Unless that demand is met, those fleeing the consequences of climate change will find themselves in a legal limbo.
The U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, has not endorsed proposals to bring them under its mandate, and there is even a dispute over what exactly to call people made homeless by the effects of climate change.
"UNHCR is afraid that its capacity to deal with political refugees is already over-stretched, and if you introduce a new element, they simply wouldn’t be able to cope," said Simms.
"The system is moving further away from meeting the needs, and the countries that are becoming more restrictive (on migration) are those who are largely responsible for global warming."
Biermann says the refugees should be given legal status through the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change -- the international treaty that is the basis for worldwide efforts to reduce global warming and cope with any temperature increases.
Biermann also recommends creating a new fund to pay for protecting and resettling the refugees.
He argues that long-term strategies like moving people away from high-risk coastal zones could avert a crisis later.
"We don’t want people grabbing their suitcases," he said. "They need new land, new jobs and seeds."
Measures that could help vulnerable people adapt to climate change have risen up the agenda at U.N. climate talks. December’s meeting in Bali, Indonesia, agreed to launch a U.N. fund to help poor nations cope with the impact of global warming.
"The issue is emerging, even if it’s not called climate refugees," Biermann said.
(Reporting by Megan Rowling; Additional reporting by Paul Taylor in Brussels; Editing by Clar Ni Chonghaile)