Climate refugees

What happens when rising ocean levels mean nations literally disappear

The Asahi Shimbun Premium / Getty Images

When Ioane Teitiota asked New Zealand last year to recognize him as a climate refugee, he put the first human face on what many alarmed migration experts believe will be a flood of people displaced by climate change in the 21st century. Upwards of 200 million by 2050 is the most commonly cited (and hotly disputed) figure, although Wilfrid Laurier University geographer Robert McLeman, the author of the forthcoming Climate and Human Migration—and who strongly doubts both figures—has seen estimates as high as a billion. “But people are already on the move, in the same way they’ve always responded to deteriorating environments,” McLeman notes. “New Orleans has still not regained the population it had before hurricane Katrina in 2005, and not everyone will stay to rebuild their lives in the Philippines after typhoon Haiyan.” And the pace of movement, like the power of the storms themselves, is accelerating.

Teitiota is from the Pacific Ocean nation of Kiribati—32 atolls and one island dispersed over 3.5 million sq. km at the equator—that has lately become, in part because of his refugee claim, ground zero of climate change. Kiribati has had some grim experiences before, including American and British hydrogen-bomb testing on remote atolls in the 1950s. But, if the more dire of climate-change predictions come true, the existential crisis still lies ahead: Kiribati, where humans have lived for more than 3,000 years and which 110,000 people currently call home, may be underwater by the end of the century, as rising temperatures and melting ice caps cause sea levels to rise.

It’s by no means certain that the ultimate disaster will fall; Pacific plate tectonics are complex, McLeman points out and, in 2010, a report indicated that Kiribati’s three main urbanized islands had actually grown larger over the last 60 years. But the Kiribatis, who don’t require a permanent deluge to be environmentally stressed—salinization of their fresh water and arable land by storm surges is bad enough—are planning for the worst. In 2008, the country’s president, Anote Tong, began urging his people to leave, calling for a mass “migration with dignity.”

That’s the best way forward, says McLeman, who admires the Kiribatis’ rare willingness to face the issue, if the increase in temperatures can’t be stemmed or—more plausibly—the effects of the rise can’t be ameliorated. It may, in fact, be the only way forward. Teitiota’s claim was rejected in November because he does not fit the definition of a refugee under international law: a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. The court called Teitiota’s argument that he was “passively persecuted” by climate change his government was powerless to combat, “novel and optimistic [but] unconvincing.”

If worst does comes to worst, in the case of Kiribati and other low-lying island nations, McLeman says, “We’re talking about hundreds of thousands, not millions, of people. Canada alone takes in 300,000 newcomers a year. The islanders would have to have priority—they won’t have options—but this would be a disaster the world could cope with.”

The big numbers and the big dangers lie not in scattered islands but in densely populated river deltas. “There are 20 million people in Shanghai living a metre above sea level,” says McLeman, “with much of their infrastructure actually at sea level,” acutely vulnerable to encroaching seawater. If there are to be large-scale forced migrations in coming decades, they will be from the coastal cites.

McLeman doesn’t—yet—feel an urge to push the panic button. Historically, more than one thing goes wrong before mass environmental migration begins. “Even in the Dust Bowl 1930s, when people poured out of the Prairies in Canada and the U.S., there was [both] drought and economic collapse. Only one, and the numbers would have been smaller.” And he’s still hopeful the world as a whole will do something, if not about the root causes of climate change, at least in adaptive measures to help keep people in place. If we don’t, the wildest predictions are back on the table: To whatever number of climate refugees can reasonably be predicted now, “add a zero to the end for every decade we ignore the problem.”




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Climate refugees

    • I have even less scientific knowledge than Al Gore so will not make a prediction but will pose a query:
      There are TWO north poles — on is on the move. When it reaches halfway around the earth, will the earth flip?

      • Like the way the sun’s magnetic fields flip every solar half cycle, the magnetic field of the earth will probably weaken and become somewhat disordered before reforming in opposite polarity.

    • “on” sic: “one” is on the move

      • The slow and steady rise in sea levels has been going on for centuries, well before the fear mongery of the AGW movement.

        • The slow and steady rise has been going on for the past 20,000 years, since the end of the glaciation. The oceans have risen an average of 2 feet per century for 20,000 years now.

          Ocean rise is nothing, when the oceans begin to fall again is when we deservedly panic.

      • Tell them what? That my grandfather’s farm is 900 feet above sea level and has an ancient beach complete with wave forms and fossils in the rock?

  1. Everything [refugees, extreme weather, insurance rates up, major damage] as predicted, and yet everyone is surprised.

    Reality bites.

      • Are you seriously suggesting insurance rates to be a valid proxy for global temperatures?

        That’s even sillier than using polar sea ice extents.

        • No sir, I’m an suggesting its a good read on extreme weather events.

          • Exactly, a silly proxy.

            Insurance companies deal with monetary losses and the risks thereof, not weather.

          • The point being that the very companies whose existence depends on understanding this are the ones who are reacting to it. They don’t care if it’s humans, the sun, the moon, aliens, or elephants causing it. The fact is, it is happening, and in my opinion we should be arguing less about causes and talking more about how to mitigate impacts.

          • All well and good, but if we can ignore causes (and we can ignore them, because we can do nothing about them anyway) then we need to look at where people live and how they build.

            Flood zones are poor places to build or rebuild. If hurricanes or tornadoes are a regular problem, then houses need to be constructed to resist those effects, or at least to have built into them safe refuge areas.

            If wildfires are a threat, then we need to clear brush from the vicinity of homes and build them with fire resistant materials.

            But this topic is about climate, and carbon strangling our economies will not only fail to materially affect our weather extremes, but will suck resources out of the economy and thus make it difficult to build or rebuild to the desired standards.

          • Not sure who mentioned carbon here, but yes I largely agree. Even if the carbon thing is true, there is obviously not enough political will to do anything about it, so the focus must be on mitigating impacts.
            The reason I said to watch insurance premiums is for exactly the points you outline. Way too many people live in flood zones, or climate change ‘high impact areas’, but I haven’t seen much government action on that. Kicking people out of homes, or declaring ‘no-go’ zones where folks already live, are not vote winners.
            However, if it costs businesses and residents more in insurance to live in these areas, or to live without appropriate safeguards, there starts to be a clear disincentive..

        • Insurance adjusters, or AL GORE….
          I’d say one has just as much a chance of being correct, as the other.
          (Of course, AL did buy a house on the shoreline right after he warned us of rising sea levels…so apparently, even AL GORE doesn’t believe AL GORE.)

      • “Tell people an invisible man in the sky created all things, they believe you.

        Tell them what you’ve painted is wet, they have to touch it to believe.”

        George Carlin

    • Emily, have you ever been to Goderich Ontario?
      If so, you’ll notice it has one of the worlds largest salt mines. The salt was laid down after the sea that covered much of the area disappeared. Now, do you suppose the salt-water sea covering North America those many years ago was the result of the internal combustion engine?
      The earth is not in stasis….and it never has been. The only thing you can be sure of with this planet…is constant change.
      We have little if any impact on a geological scale.

      • Only the true science deniers believe in climate stasis.

    • “Everything [refugees, extreme weather, insurance rates up, major damage] as predicted”

      Exactly right EmilyOne, everything has been predicted. That’s why no matter what actually transpires, someone’s random prediction turns out to be correct.

      When you bet on every horse in each race, you will be correct every time.

      • That’s nice dear, wear a sweater.

  2. Wow. There are still people who believe in AGW theory? How terribly sad. It’s like this article was written in 1990. The models don’t work. The theory is bunk. Carbon is skyrocketing yet the Earth’s temps have not increased for almost two decades. 15 years ago we were not supposed to have winters as we know it by now. In the past year there were almost 100 published scientific studies showing that the sun (you know, that firery ball in the sky responsible for our heat) determines the earth’s temp. Solar flare activity (or lack thereof) linked to the maunder minimum, which also predicted this recent bout of cooling.
    Though I must say this article was nostalgic. I feel like renting The Bodygaurd, calling up some old college buddies.

    • “Solar flare activity (or lack thereof) linked to the maunder minimum, which also predicted this recent bout of cooling.”

      Impressive. So cool indeed that 2013 was only the 4th warmest year ever recorded in the UAH satellite record.

      • Cooler, you might notice, than three other years.

        Not warmer, but cooler.

        And while global cooling has a lag time, and has not yet set in, the absence of anything more than trivial warming while CO2 continues to increase unabated cuts the legs out from under the cause-and-effect claims about CO2 and temperature.

        • Yes, and warmer than the 30 other years.
          But I see you still think climate science has predicted that every single year will be warmer than the previous, despite never having provided a shred of evidence that this is so.
          Nor have have you ever explained why every single day in the Spring isn’t warmer than the previous despite the ever increasing day length.

          • The predictions are gathered together for presentation by the IPCC. For scenarios of ever increasing CO2, the prediction (A2, below) is for ever increasing temperatures.
            http://www.ipcc.ch/graphics/ar4-wg1/jpg/fig-10-4.jpg

            There is variability over short periods of time, two to three years, but we’re into a decade and a half of stagnation now.

            Here’s a more rational comparison of the observations and the predictions:
            http://wattsupwiththat.files.wordpress.com/2009/03/akasofu_ipcc.jpg

          • Those aren’t annual predictions. If you insist on using them as such, you’ll have to stop pretending you can’t see the error bars.

            “There is variability over short periods of time, two to three years”
            You’ll have provide a citation for that.

          • They’re not annual predictions, but why should they be? They’re not monthly or daily either.

            The reality remains that the observations are not cleaving unto the predictions.

          • The reality remains that the observations are not cleaving unto the predictions.

            They’ ARE NOT ANNUAL PREDICTIONS. IF YOU WISH TO USE THEM AS SUCH YOU CAN”T CHOOSE TO IGNORE THE ERROR BARS.
            Clear enough for you?

          • The model projections do not have ‘error bars’ as such.

            They show a range of instability of their output, but that’s at best a measure of the repeatability of the algorithms, and not error.

            It remains that if rising CO2 does not result in rising temperatures, there is a serious defect in the claims for cause-and-effect that would hold CO2 to be a dominant forcing in global temperature.

          • Maybe you’re suggesting that the less stable the model outputs become, the more likely it will be that some small percentage of those outputs will intersect the observations?

            That assumption would have us believe that the wider the range the model outputs have, the better the models fit the data.

            But that just leads to incentives to make the models less stable and less controlled.

            ‘Worse models to get a better fit’ is not an approach likely to yield useful results.

          • He can choose to ignore the error bars for the same reason you choose to ignore the fact that many of the climate models you adhere to….ignore’s real data, and instead prefers to use proxy data.
            Real data tends to show the climate models are bogus. We don’t want any real facts that may result in loss of funding now would we?

          • Look at the data for variability over two to three years.

            You’ll be able to see it.

          • No. I want you to cite a source that says those climate projections only expect variability of “two to three year” periods.

          • The source is there. It’s the dataset that shows variability.

            The models can show whatever the modellers think they want to show, but that’s instability, not variability.

          • This isn’t hard. Nowhere in the scientific literature will you find the claim that there is no natural variability in temperature, or that each year will be warmer than the last. In fact 30 year averaging periods are quite clearly the standard.
            You’re refuting a figment of your imagination unless you can demonstrate otherwise. And a projection graph with a +/- 1C standard deviation ain’t it.

          • lenny….if you’ve ever spent time up in the Canadian Artic….you may have noticed the forest of petrified trees. (and it wasn’t plate tectonics)
            Apparently, at one time….well before people made an entrance, there was a healthy and vibrant forest growing up there.
            Hmm…how is that possible unless it was much warmer eons ago, than it is today?
            Guess the “climate” scientists prefer to leave out some data that tends to mess up their models.

  3. People will always believe what they want to believe even when backed into a corner. Witness the “Rob Ford for PM” boosters, or those who still think the Rolling Stones are a rockin’ band and not a corporation.

    As a species, I see us crapping in the nest more than ever. Our numbers continue to grow and we hope (expect?) that the earth will allow for our continued dominance over everything but the weather.
    I see it incrementally all around me. The disposable electronics that are cheaper to buy new than to fix. The endless styrofoam, plastic packaging that we love so. The gimmicky, useless dollar crap that has pushed out products that used to last.
    Finding new civic dumps for all this junk is an ugly, never ending NIMBY nightmare.

    We bury, burn, leech and expel an ever expanding list of chemical compounds that steadily drip down into our food chain. We follow our primitive insticts and greedily consume and discard whatever we want, while we appease our souls by theorizing that it should go on forever.

    You’ll not convince me our polluting ways aren’t cumulatively growing, and that it won’t have a price tag on down the line. AGW could be a myth, but either way we won’t curb our appetites. We’re hard wired to succeed, and success lives for the limit.

  4. this year in middle north western canada. it has been a very interesting year not to metion the last 4 years lots of snow and cold. but the interesting thing about this year so far isnt the snow. its how january has been. in the past 4 years it has been warm for a week and then cold again. we just had 2 months of uncharacteristic weather. cold, lots of snow. flash freezing, and so on. then it just stops. plus 6 for 2 weeks straight. and really no end in sight. has spring come early. Or is this signs of global warming. i know alberta has chinooks. but really, a 2 week shinook. you tell me

  5. The surefire answer to global warming, cooling, climate changes is to raise taxes now.

    • I agree completely!
      And by the way, I am like totally sexy and everything.
      - Justin Trudeau

  6. I just wrote in, but I do not see it commented. This effect reminded me of Water World starring Kevin Kostner. Any predictions for Newfoundland?

    • LOL Where was Newfoundland?

    • Linda, I wouldn’t be basing my beliefs on anything produced in Hollywood.
      In fact, I have seen “Planet of the Apes” many times……does that mean we should go out an kill all the chimps?
      Just in case.
      Predictions for Newfoundland. Given the nature of Newfoundlanders, I suspect that if the water rises…they’ll just buy a bigger set of hip waders, or move their homes a little higher.

  7. Kiribati is a nation of atolls.

    Atolls are composed of living corals which grow to match any rise in ocean levels, then they die back again when ocean levels fall. The corals maintain a steady state with the surface, no matter what the ocean does.

    Since the end of the last glaciation, oceans have risen about 400 feet. Its no fluke that atoll nations like Kiribati are still at sea level.

    The people of Kiribati know this, why don’t Canadian journalists?

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