Climate refugees: How extreme weather is forcing people to move

Climate change will trigger mass migrations: UN

Beyond the headlines of extreme weather events are the ordinary people who have to pick up the pieces and rebuild their lives.

In the future, an increasing number of people will be forced to move within their countries or across borders to try to start again, the United Nations' migration and refugee agencies say. No one knows for sure how many. It will greatly depend on how fast greenhouse gas emissions are cut to limit the global warming that is fuelling greater extremes of weather and rising sea levels. It will also depend on efforts to help people adapt to new weather norms.

Estimates vary from 25 million to one billion environmental migrants by 2050 moving on a permanent or temporary basis, with 200 million being the most widely cited estimate, according to the UN's International Organisation for Migration.

Last year, nearly 19 million were newly displaced by natural disasters, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre reported earlier this year.

Climate change is happening now and with every passing year more people are at risk, the UN says.

The extra heat in the atmosphere and oceans is supercharging storms, triggering record floods, intensifying heatwaves and droughts and is blamed for increasingly fierce wildfires. Melting ice caps and glaciers and warming oceans are causing sea levels to rise - they have climbed about 20cm since pre-industrial times - threatening coastal megacities. The myriad impacts show how complex a problem climate change is and why so many people are vulnerable. All countries are at risk.

Adding to the complexity, climate change can also exacerbate existing local problems. Droughts that visit already degraded farm lands can turn the situation more acute. When more violent storms hit coastal areas where mangrove forests are being destroyed, the damage will magnify. Land conflicts and poor land management mean farmers aren't as prepared or resilient when faced with weather extremes.

The UN climate panel says climate risks can be limited if global warming is kept to within 1.5 deg C. But right now the world is far from achieving that. Instead, if greenhouse gas emissions aren't cut deeply in the coming decades, sea levels could rise by 1m or more by 2100 and will continue to rise for several centuries, drowning many coastal cities across the globe.

 
 

Rising sea levels have already forced many thousands of people to migrate from low-lying Pacific Islands as well as the islands in the Sundarbans mangrove forest.

The same creeping disaster has destroyed villages along the flat northern coastal plains of Java in Indonesia - an area doubly hit because it also faces land subsidence caused by excessive groundwater extraction.

In Bangladesh, India, Vietnam and parts of Myanmar, rising sea levels and cyclones have also destroyed homes and livelihoods, forcing thousands to flee. Some who do return build higher and sturdier homes.

The many who leave permanently end up in towns working as low-paid labourers or prostitutes.

It is the poorest and most vulnerable who suffer most from the wrath of climate change. But wealthy nations are also at risk.

In the United States, the extreme flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey last year and Hurricane Florence in September displaced hundreds of thousands of people. Some never returned to homes that were destroyed or too costly to repair.

Hurricane Michael last month added to the despair, smashing many homes and businesses to pieces. "All these displaced people are not simply evacuees fleeing a dangerous hurricane. They are climate refugees," wrote Mr Orrin Pilkey, Professor Emeritus of earth sciences at Duke University, and Mr Keith Pilkey, in a recent opinion piece in The Hill.

Both wrote the forthcoming book Sea Level Rise Along America's Shores: The Slow Tsunami and predict massive upheaval within the US in coming decades.

"Every major storm produces climate refugees," they say.

"Right now, the diaspora is a trickle. But massive flights of climate refugees are likely within this century, especially from vulnerable low-lying locations such as Miami (four million refugees). Big storms likely will precipitate the exodus."

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 04, 2018, with the headline 'Climate change will trigger mass migrations: UN'. Print Edition | Subscribe