(CNSNews.com) - Speaking Monday in Valparaiso, Chile, Secretary of State John Kerry was asked why the term "climate refugees" does not exist in international law.
Kerry said the question was "right on point," and although the term is a new one, he expects it's "just a matter of time" before it is incorporated into international policy.
"We have climate refugees today," Kerry told a town hall meeting on the sidelines of an Oceans conference.
"There are people who have to leave where they were living because the drought is so significant they can't grow food, or they've lost their water, or there are fights over wells in certain places and so they have to move in order to find a place. There are climate refugees in the world today -- people who've had to move because of the rise of sea level or the changes in the thawing of the permafrost and so forth.
"Now, it hasn't reached a crescendo. It's not at a level where the international community has yet codified, put it into law," he explained.
"But the day could come, if we don't respond rapidly, you could have millions of climate refugees. You could have people moving from whole areas where today you can grow things and tomorrow you can't.
"So I'd just say to you very quickly I think there is an increasing awareness -- I hear this in all our international meetings now -- people are talking about climate refugees. So I think it's just a matter of time before it fits in under a category and countries have -- and the refugee process has legitimately incorporated it into our policy."
Kerry -- from the former fishing state of Massachusetts -- was in Chile to discuss illegal fishing, ocean pollution, and climate change, which he blames for acidification and the warming of the ocean.
On the same day Kerry spoke about climate refugees, António Guterres, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said there are now more than 60 million political refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced people in the world -- and he said that number is rising.
Ten years ago, Guterres noted, the number was 38 million and falling.
"The number of people globally displaced by conflict every single day has nearly quadrupled in that time – from almost 11,000 in 2010 to 42,500 last year," he told the U.N. refugee agency in Geneva.
Guterres said that 15 new conflicts have broken out or flared up again in the last five years, without any of the old ones getting resolved.