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75 million environmental refugees by 2050

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Climate Change

Environmental refugees

Credit: Cameron Feast/Oxfam

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Seventy-five million refugees could be fleeing from climate change induced problems in the Asia-Pacific region over the next 40 years, a new report has predicted.

The Oxfam Australia report, The Future is Here: Climate Change in the Pacific, published Monday, highlights the urgent need for next week's Pacific Islands Forum in Cairns to address the dramatic effects of climate change within the region, the group said.

The report has found that Pacific Islanders are already feeling the effects of climate change and are in need of timely support.

Problems that they face include increasing food and water shortages, losing land and being forced from their homes, dealing with rising cases of malaria, and coping with more frequent flooding and storm surges.

The report argues that unless wealthy, developed countries like Australia take urgent action to curb emissions, some island nations face the very real threat of becoming uninhabitable.

Pacific leaders will raise the issue of climate change with Prime Minister Kevin Rudd at the Pacific Islands Forum from 4 - 7 August.

Oxfam Australia Executive Director Andrew Hewett said with only months to go until the crucial UN negotiations in Copenhagen in December, it was clear Australia needed to show Pacific leaders it was willing to do its fair share to address one of the most pressing challenges in the region.

"People are already leaving their homes because of climate change, with projections that 75 million people in the Asia-Pacific region will be forced to relocate by 2050 if climate change continues unabated. Not all will have the option of relocating within their own country, so it's vital that the Australian Government starts working with Pacific governments to plan for this now," he said.

Oxfam's report details how Pacific Islanders are already adapting to their changing climate. Fijians, for example, are taking steps to 'climate-proof' their villages by trialling salt-resistant varieties of staple foods, planting mangroves and native grasses to halt coastal erosion, protecting fresh water wells from saltwater intrusion and relocating homes and community buildings away from vulnerable coastlines.

Elsewhere, the Malaita provincial government in the Solomon Islands is looking for land to resettle people from low-lying outer atolls, while people living in the outer atolls of the Federated States of Micronesia are facing food and water shortages and moving to higher ground.

The fairest and most cost-effective way of dealing with climate change, the report says, is to ensure the most extreme impacts are avoided altogether, as Australia would be called on to respond to more emergencies in the region.

As the wealthiest country in the region and the highest per capita polluter, Australia must prevent further climate damage to the Pacific by urgently adopting higher targets, Oxfam said, recommending reducing emissions by at least 40 per cent on 1990 levels by 2020, and urging other developed countries to do the same.

It also said the Government's commitment of $150 million to help Pacific Islanders adapt to climate change needs to be at least doubled to meet the most urgent adaptation needs in the Pacific, in addition to Australia's existing aid commitments so that crucial poverty alleviation efforts are not compromised.