Global heating and related climate disruption are happening faster than expected. We are seeing the effects of climate pollution, like warmer air and water, ice loss, prolonged droughts, year-round wildfire seasons, and rising sea levels, interact and compound each other’s secondary effects.

Rapid sea-level rise means coastal jurisdictions are generally not prepared to deal with the hard impacts of persistent flooding and unprecedented storm surges. This can result in some major population centers becoming unlivable after shock events.

The Secretary-General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, is now warning of an unprecedented crisis of mass migration and destabilization. In his remarks to the Security Council, Guterres called climate change a threat multiplier and said:

“Low-lying communities and entire countries could disappear for ever. We would witness a mass exodus of entire populations on a biblical scale. And we would see ever fiercer competition for fresh water, land and other resources.”

He highlighted reporting from NASA that: “Antarctica is losing an average of 150 billion tons of ice mass annually,” and “The Greenland ice cap is melting even faster — losing 270 billion tons per year.”

As ocean heating and melting of ice on land rapidly advance, so does the loss of sea ice in polar regions. Antarctica has been found to have, at this writing, the lowest sea ice extent on record. This is a climate disruption accelerator, since white reflective ice is replaced with dark seawater that absorbs far more heat.

As people flee coastal communities and seek safety in major population centers further inland, or in other countries, their human rights need to be honored. They continue to have a right to lead healthy, free, safe, and productive lives. The Secretary-General noted the dangerous gaps in international law, and added that:

“People’s human rights do not disappear because their homes do.”

How the world will adjust to accommodate hundreds of millions of climate refugees in coming decades remains an open question. The early warning systems needed to reduce risk and enhance livability in vulnerable areas are not yet in place for much of the world. Food systems are not secure against the intensifying pattern of climate shocks, so repeated price spikes and inflation-induced instability are likely.

There remain significant conflicts between agreed international legal protections and the national laws needed to recognize those protections in practice. Resolving those legal conflicts—so that people displaced by climate-related breakdown of their natural and institutional environment, can live healthy, free, safe, and productive lives—is a structural imperative of our times.

At Citizens’ Climate International, we believe in a pro-active, cooperative, optimistic response to the climate crisis. Strategic awareness of the rising level of threat and risk is necessary for ensuring we coordinate the most effective local, national, and global response to climate disruption.

As climate disruption advances, all nations will have to be far better prepared to welcome refugees. That will require major innovations in policy, law, finance, and development strategies. We must be careful to put in place the tools and safeguards to ensure we honor our common humanity.