One Billion People May Become Climate Refugees By 2050
By Maria Trimarchi and Sarah Gleim
If all the glaciers and ice caps on the planet melted, global sea level would rise by about 230 feet. That amount of water would flood nearly every coastal city around the world [source: U.S. Geological Survey]. Rising temperatures, melting arctic ice, drought, desertification and other catastrophic effects of climate change are not examples of future troubles — they are reality today. Climate change isn't just about the environment; its effects touch every part of our lives, from the stability of our governments and economies to our health and where we live.
Where would you go if, say, a flood devastated the city you live in? Millions of people around the world have been forced to answer this question. In 2017, 68.5 million people were displaced — more than at any point in human history, according to the Brookings Institute. More than one-third of those were uprooted by sudden weather events, including floods, forest fires and intense storms. A 2018 report from the World Bank, which focused on three regions — Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America — found that without tangible climate action, more than 143 million people in just these three areas will be forced to move to escape the impacts of climate change by 2050.
But more than 1 billion people worldwide will live in countries with insufficient infrastructure to withstand climate change by 2050. The Pacific Islands are expected to be affected especially hard. Sea level there is already rising at almost 0.5 inches per year. Eight islands have already been submerged and two more are close to vanishing. By the year 2100, experts fear 48 more islands in the Pacific will be completely underwater.
So what about the people who live there? What do we call these people who will be displaced? It's actually complicated. It's difficult to determine what category these migrants should fall under because no global definition exists. Why does that matter? Without a standard method of classification, there's no way to track how many people are affected or displaced by an environmental or climate event. So the most commonly used term is "environmental refugee."
Experts credit the term and its definition to UN Environment Program (UNEP) researcher Essam El-Hinnawi, who in 1985 wrote the United Nations report titled "Environmental Refugees." El-Hinnawi defined environmental refugees as:
... those people who have been forced to leave their traditional habitat, temporarily or permanently, because of a marked environmental disruption (natural and/or triggered by people) that jeopardized their existence and/or seriously affected the quality of their life.
This working definition has been the baseline for current debate.
But according to the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention, a refugee "is someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion" [source: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees]. Environmental refugees do not legally fall under this status.
Why environmental refugees flee their homes is a complicated mixture of environmental degradation and desperate socioeconomic conditions. People leave their homes when their livelihoods and safety are jeopardized. What effects of climate change put them in jeopardy? Climate change triggers, among other problems, desertification and drought, deforestation, land degradation, rising sea levels, floods, more frequent and more extreme storms, earthquakes, volcanoes, food insecurity and famine.
The September 2020 Ecological Threat Register Report, by the Institute for Economics & Peace, predicts the hardest hit populations will be:
- Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa
- Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Chad, India and Pakistan (which are among the world's least peaceful countries)
- Pakistan, Ethiopia and Iran are most at risk for mass displacements
- Haiti faces the highest risk of all countries in Central America and the Caribbean
- India and China will be among countries experiencing high or extreme water stress
The report also suggests that developed countries like the United States and regions like Europe are not immune. "The European refugee crisis in the wake of wars in Syria and Iraq in 2015 saw 2 million people flee to Europe and highlights the link between rapid population shifts with political turbulence and social unrest." Developed countries including Sweden, Norway, Ireland face little to no threat, the report found.
Climate change does not impact all people and all parts of the world in the same way. While floods ravage some areas, deserts are spreading in others. Desertification and depleted resources, including shortages of water and fertile land, are long-term consequences of climate change. But one of the biggest threats will be food insecurity.
"Ecological threats and climate change pose serious challenges to global peacefulness," Steve Killelea, founder and executive chairman of the Institute for Economics and Peace said in the in the 2020 Ecological Threat Report. "Over the next 30 years, lack of access to food and water will only increase without urgent global cooperation. In the absence of action civil unrest, riots and conflict will most likely increase. COVID-19 is already exposing gaps in the global food chain."
The report suggests global demand for food will increase by 50 percent by 2050. That means if there's no increase in food supply, many people could starve or be forced to flee in search of food. Currently, more than 2 billion people around the world are already food insecure.
When faced with the decision to flee, most people want to stay in their own country or region. Leaving a country requires money and could mean leaving behind family; simply relocating from a rural to urban area in search of work and resources may be easier. Plus, the chance to return and resettle back home is unlikely if a family leaves their country entirely. In instances when an area is temporarily inhabitable, like after a destructive hurricane, returning home may be an option. But when coastlines — or entire islands — are underwater, the possibility of going home is out of the question.
The future impacts of climate change will disproportionately affect the world's poorest but will also pressure countries around the globe through mass migration of refugees. Adaptation and resilience will be the key to reducing displacement risk — both temporary and permanent — in the forms of early warning systems and flood-defense infrastructure, sustainable agriculture and drought-resistant crops, as well as other protections.
This story originally appeared in HowStuffWorks and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
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The speed and scale of the response to COVID-19 by governments, businesses and individuals seems to provide hope that we can react to the climate change crisis in a similarly decisive manner - but history tells us that humans do not react to slow-moving and distant threats.
A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
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