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"This is a story about people who stand to lose everything—people who may need to flee their native home and never come back. These people are refugees, but they're not running from war or an oppressive government. They're seeking asylum from climate change," the narrator of the Seeker Stories episode below explained.
Rising seas and increasingly violent storms have wreaked havoc on small island nations like Tuvalu. Photo credit: Vlad Sokhin
There are a growing number of communities that are on the "frontlines of climate change," including Native Alaskans and the low-lying island nations of Oceania. These communities are already facing the impacts of climate change, and their unique locations and more traditional livelihoods make them particularly vulnerable to the consequences of a warming world.
Photographer and filmmaker Vlad Sokhin partnered with Seeker to produce the video to document how rising seas and increasingly violent storms have already decimated Pacific island communities like Tuvalu.
"I have seen villages completely destroyed by strong winds and huge storm surges," Sokhin said in the video. "People have lost their lives and communities have been displaced from places where their families have lived for generations."
According to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's assessment, we're in for at least one to three feet of sea level rise by the end of the century. NASA scientists, however, warn that sea level is rising much faster than expected, and James Hansen and 16 other prominent climate researchers warned this summer that we could see as much as a 10 foot sea-level rise in as little as 50 years.
That spells disaster for Tuvaluans. Its population of 11,000 is clustered together on nine islands, comprising a total land area of 10 square kilometers. Its highest elevation is just 15 feet above sea level. One-fifth of Tuvalu's population has already left their homes to seek refuge on larger islands. And Tuvalu's not alone. The South Pacific islands of Kiribati, Vanuatu and the Maldives are among those facing imminent danger.
But it's not just low-lying island nations that will deal with the impacts of climate change. Amsterdam, Hamburg and Lisbon, Portugal, are a few of the cities that will face the impacts of rising seas before the end of the century, according to Sokhin. And research published in October 2015 found that 414 cities and towns in the U.S. “have already passed their lock-in date [for sea level rise], or the point at which it's guaranteed that more than half the city's populated land will eventually be underwater no matter how much humans decrease carbon emissions; it's just a matter of when."
Watch Seeker Stories episode, The World's First Climate Refugees, here:
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Last week, the Peruvian Palm Oil Producers' Association (JUNPALMA) promised to enter into an agreement for sustainable and deforestation-free palm oil production. The promise was secured by the U.S. based National Wildlife Federation (NWF) in collaboration with the local government, growers and the independent conservation organization Sociedad Peruana de Ecodesarrollo.
The rallying cry to build it again and to build it better than before is inspiring after a natural disaster, but it may not be the best course of action, according to new research published in the journal Science.
"Faced with global warming, rising sea levels, and the climate-related extremes they intensify, the question is no longer whether some communities will retreat—moving people and assets out of harm's way—but why, where, when, and how they will retreat," the study begins.
The researchers suggest that it is time to rethink retreat, which is often seen as a last resort and a sign of weakness. Instead, it should be seen as the smart option and an opportunity to build new communities.
"We propose a reconceptualization of retreat as a suite of adaptation options that are both strategic and managed," the paper states. "Strategy integrates retreat into long-term development goals and identifies why retreat should occur and, in doing so, influences where and when."
The billions of dollars spent to rebuild the Jersey Shore and to create dunes to protect from future storms after Superstorm Sandy in 2012 may be a waste if sea level rise inundates the entire coastline.
"There's a definite rhetoric of, 'We're going to build it back better. We're going to win. We're going to beat this. Something technological is going to come and it's going to save us,'" said A.R. Siders, an assistant professor with the disaster research center at the University of Delaware and lead author of the paper, to the New York Times. "It's like, let's step back and think for a minute. You're in a fight with the ocean. You're fighting to hold the ocean in place. Maybe that's not the battle we want to pick."
Rethinking retreat could make it a strategic, efficient, and equitable way to adapt to the climate crisis, the study says.
Dr. Siders pointed out that it has happened before. She noted that in the 1970s, the small town of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin moved itself out of the flood plain after one too many floods. The community found and reoriented the business district to take advantage of highway traffic and powered it entirely with solar energy, as the New York Times reported.
That's an important lesson now that rising sea levels pose a catastrophic risk around the world. Nearly 75 percent of the world's cities are along shorelines. In the U.S. alone coastline communities make up nearly 40 percent of the population— more than 123 million people, which is why Siders and her research team are so forthright about the urgency and the complexities of their findings, according to Harvard Magazine.
Some of those complexities include, coordinating moves across city, state or even international lines; cultural and social considerations like the importance of burial grounds or ancestral lands; reparations for losses or damage to historic practices; long-term social and psychological consequences; financial incentives that often contradict environmental imperatives; and the critical importance of managing retreat in a way that protects vulnerable and poor populations and that doesn't exacerbate past injustices, as Harvard Magazine reported.
If communities could practice strategic retreats, the study says, doing so would not only reduce the need for people to choose among bad options, but also improve their circumstances.
"It's a lot to think about," said Siders to Harvard Magazine. "And there are going to be hard choices. It will hurt—I mean, we have to get from here to some new future state, and that transition is going to be hard.…But the longer we put off making these decisions, the worse it will get, and the harder the decisions will become."
To help the transition, the paper recommends improved access to climate-hazard maps so communities can make informed choices about risk. And, the maps need to be improved and updated regularly, the paper said as the New York Times reported.
"It's not that everywhere should retreat," said Dr. Siders to the New York Times. "It's that retreat should be an option. It should be a real viable option on the table that some places will need to use."
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