Tag Archives: climate change

Refuge from Climate Change




In 1988, two United Nations organizations, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The scientific intergovernmental organization was later endorsed by the United Nations General Assembly through Resolution 43/53. The role of the IPCC is to “assess on a comprehensive, objective, open and transparent basis the scientific, technical and socio-economic information relevant to understanding the scientific basis of risk of human-induced climate change, its potential impacts and options for adaptation and mitigation.”

Reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in recent years demonstrate a near consensus on climate change and the role that human activity plays in its development. Climate change is one of the most important issues of our time, given its worldwide scope and capacity to change the face of the planet forever. From Hurricane Katrina, dubbed the most destructive hurricane to strike the US, to the 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami that resulted in more than 18,000 deaths, it is clear that erratic weather patterns and major shifts in our climate can have immense effects on our everyday lives.

Last week, a New Zealand court heard the appeal of a very novel type of asylum seeker: a climate change refugee. The individual, who cannot be named due to New Zealand immigration law, is seeking refuge in the country for himself and his family, due to rising sea levels in his home country of Kiribati. “Kiribati, an impoverished string of 33 coral atolls about halfway between Hawaii and Australia, has about 103,000 people and has been identified by scientists as one of the nations that is most vulnerable to climate change. The country’s atolls have an average height above sea level of just 6.5 feet.” According to this individual, his family had to seek higher ground as so-called king tides have become a norm in Kiribati, killing crops, flooding homes and sickening people.

The world’s oceans have been rising at an annual rate of 0.1 inches since 1970, and this poses a great risk for low-lying island countries, such as those in the South Pacific. Countries such as Tuvalu, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands are at great risk due to rising ocean levels. Earlier this month, an international panel of climate scientists issued a report saying that it was “extremely likely” that human activity was causing global warming, and predicted that oceans could rise by as much as 3.3 feet by the end of the century. If that were to happen, much of Kiribati would simply disappear.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees defines a refugee as “someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Most likely, they cannot return home or are afraid to do so. War and ethnic, tribal and religious violence are leading causes of refugees fleeing their countries.” While this definition is very thorough and constructive – given the causes of migration in the past – it does not fully encompass all acceptable causes of migration. In today’s world, people are not only harmed and persecuted by war or violence, but also suffer greatly due to drastic weather patterns in places they call home. While estimates vary on the rate and speed at which our oceans are rising and our climate is changing, there is much concern about vulnerable populations in certain countries. If climate change does continue its course with no fundamental obstacles placed in its place, entire populations of South Pacific island countries should be considered possible future climate change refugees. And this is not taking into consideration other consequences of climate change that include droughts, deforestation and flooding.

According to Renaud et al, there are three types of environmentally driven refugees or migrants. Environmental emergency migrants are people that are displaced due to sudden events, especially disasters. These migrants flee to save their lives due to events such as floods, hurricanes, tsunami waves, and volcanic eruptions. There is also a high chance that these migrants will eventually return to their homes once they no longer in immediate danger. Environmentally forced migrants are people who have to abandon their homes in connection with worsening environmental condition. These migrants are forced to leave because of gradual and often irreversible degradation of the environment, with limited opportunity to return to their homes. The causes of such displacements include: droughts, coastal deterioration, and deforestation. Finally, there are environmentally motivated migrants, who decide to migrate from a deteriorating area anticipating negative environmental changes in the future. This migration is a response to environmental degradation, but it is not an emergency action. Environmental emergency migrants are quite common, given the frequency with which certain countries are hit with earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and tsunamis. The theory for the future, however, is that we will be seeing a higher number of environmentally forced migrants, as certain regions will become entirely uninhabitable.

Norman Myers, a British environmentalist, has written extensively on the subject of environmental migrants. In his paper, Environmental Exodus, Myers put the number of climate change refugees at 200 million by 2050. Various NGOs and both the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change and the president of the UN General Assembly in 2008 have mentioned this number. While Myers does point out that this number is in the upper limit, many have questioned the methodology and accuracy of his estimate. Irrespective of whether this estimate is entirely accurate, it is a fact that ocean levels are rising, and many low-lying countries are at risk. It is a fact that droughts, deforestation, tsunamis and massive earthquakes are making certain areas of the world highly volatile places to live. And it is a fact that we need to start paying attention to the consequences of climate change, one being mass migrations around the globe.

Legal experts believe that the appeal of the individual from Kiribati seeking asylum in New Zealand will be denied, given an earlier tribunal decision, which rejected his claim on the grounds that his life wasn’t in jeopardy and many others on Kiribati faced similar problems. The legal principle at the moment, according to Bill Hodge, a constitutional law expert at the University of Auckland, only recognizes the individual risk and not the collective risk. If the man’s appeal is rejected, he will be deported with his wife and three New Zealand-born children, the youngest less than a year old. While this individual is likely to be deported along with his family, he has raised a very important issue which governments must sooner than later make a priority. Climate change is a social problem, and its consequences can be dire for millions in vulnerable locations.

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Development? Adaptation? Or something in between?


This week I’ve been thinking back to a class I took my first year of grad school. It was focused on climate change – not the science alone, but the more nuanced concepts of mitigation, adaptation and resiliency. These ideas come back to me often when I hear climate change being discussed in the media and in more political contexts.

Here in the U.S. when we talk about climate change (yes, I am well aware it is not currently in the news, due to more pressing topics like, oh, I don’t know, our government shutting down), it is at worst focused on nitpicking valid scientific data, and at best more productively focused on options for mitigation. Mitigation, to be clear, refers to those practices that will help curb the amount of CO2 and other greenhouse gasses that human development produces in large quantity.  President Obama’s recent Climate Plan, and actions taken by the EPA over the past several years, sought to promote this idea of mitigation. But while mitigation is obviously an important concept–and I am in no way dismissing it’s place in the climate discussion–a sole focus on mitigation activities seems futile. Given the way that greenhouse gasses collect and remain in our atmosphere, it is too late to focus on mitigation alone – even if we were to stop emitting carbon, it would not be enough to stop the impacts of climate change.

Adaptation is starting to become the new buzzword, primarily in academic circles, and is seen almost as the next step after mitigation. Adaptation, for lack of a set definition, is the practice of dealing with the tangible impacts of climate change. It’s what happens after mitigation fails (or gets started too late). For example, changing farming practices to allow for continued food production in an increasingly arid environment might be an example of adaptation. Adaptation is also closely tied to the concept of resiliency.  Originally a scientific term that relates to ecological systems, resiliency applied to climate change is more socially focused. It’s the ability of people to be ok–to maintain life and livelihoods–even after climate change alters their lives. I tend to think of resiliency as a measurement of the level of people’s ability to adapt, though as I experienced in the class I referred to earlier, this is up for debate.

Now, to the ideas that really interest me. Or perhaps paradox is the word. The underlying factors that influence adaptation and resiliency are quite similar to indicators of “development”.  In a word: resources. If you have money, access to markets, the ability to purchase food, a road to drive on, a changing climate is (barring disaster) something that is in your capabilities to handle. As an aspiring international development practicioner, I struggle with whether or not adaptation to climate change is separate from traditional international development priorities and values, and funding. If access to livelihoods, infrastructure and other resources determines a community’s ability to adapt to changing environmental conditions, then do we need to even talk about adaptation to climate change? Should we maybe just focused on increased sustainable development that considers mitigation? More specifically what I struggle with is whether or not adaptation to climate change should be it’s own field of practice, with organizations devoted to its promotion. Or if simply increasing a community’s general level of development – infrastructure, economic productivity, social networks – will make communities more resilient, and hence better able to adapt to climate change.

I lean towards the side of separate but connected. To me, the fact that climate change impacts are already being felt in vulnerable communities, and the reality that international development is at times a slow-moving field, an explicit focus on adaptation seems necessary. But perhaps in the vein of sustainability and long-term view of development, it should still be a concept for international development agencies to struggle with and incorporate into their more general initiatives.

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Climate refugees?


“One of the gravest effects of climate change may be those on human migration.”

This was the prediction of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in the very first Assessment Report, published in 1990. Over 20 years, and four more assessment reports later, it appears that this global consortium of scientists was on to something. As the impacts of climate change become more tangible, threatening livelihoods and physical space, environmentally-motivated migration is on the rise. While an international conversation has begun on the issue, and terms like “climate refugees” begin to make their way into our vernacular, the international community seems unprepared for this new type of migration.

Given the reality that anthropogenic climate change is itself a contentious idea in some circles, the jump to claim that forced migration is occurring directly from climate change impacts is difficult. Migration motivated by environmental conditions is not a new story. The practice has been essential to human evolution and survival over the course of history. Consider pastoralist tribes throughout the world who have sustained a culture based on moving with the ebbs and flows of resource quality and availability. Contemporary large scale movements of people due to environmental conditions are also not hard to call to mind. In both developed and developing nations, natural disasters like cyclones and floods occur frequently and are almost always associated with mass displacement.

So is climate induced migration any different? In my eyes… yes. Absolutely. When people flee their homes because of an imminent natural disaster, they typically do so with the intent to return. A cyclone may cause huge damage to infrastructure and homes, and require a rebuilding process, but these types of fast-onset natural disasters do not typically cause permanent displacement. Environmental harm due to climate change, however, is different. The impacts of climate change are slow-onset, meaning they build over time and are not really expected to culminate in a headline-grabbing, one-time event. Instead, phenomena like desertification, erosion, land loss and changes in soil fertility are gradual processes that eventually reach a tipping point when they render a place unlivable. Deteriorating environmental conditions caused by climate change are more likely to effect spatial geography, livelihoods, and production patterns in a way that may permanently preclude the ability for communities of people to survive there.  Continue reading

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