Syrian Exodus Won’t Compare to Global Climate Migration
People move for many reasons: work, school, family, to seek out the bright lights of the big city or to escape them. But as temperatures rise and global warming continues to manifest itself in rising seas, coastal erosion and more severe droughts, floods and storms, climate change is becoming increasingly intertwined in the reasoning behind why people pick up and leave.
Syrian refugees at a camp in Bulgaria. Photo credit: UNHCR
Some head to higher ground within their own country; others try their luck in new lands. In Alaska, it’s the former. As temperatures there have risen twice as fast as the global average over the past half century, native coastal communities established decades ago on permafrost—a once permanently frozen layer of subsoil—are washing away as the land beneath them thaws and erodes into the sea. President Obama visited one of these towns, Kotzebue, earlier this month. For several areas, relocation is the only option remaining to protect residents as the ground beneath their homes crumbles. “This is a true example of running down the clock,” says Danielle Baussan, the Center for American Progress’ managing director of energy policy, who has looked into domestic impacts of climate displacement. “Some of these communities are predicted to be underwater by 2017.”
The motivation behind the moves in Alaska is pretty clear-cut. More often than not, however, connecting the dots between climate change and human migration is a far murkier endeavor. While global warming can magnify the impacts of extreme weather events, a wide variety of non-environmental factors determine whether people choose to move and where they choose to go following a disaster.
“Disaster displacement is multi-causal,” says Marine Franck, a climate change consultant for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. “Climate change is an important factor but not the only factor.” As the Migration Policy Institute elaborates in an article examining the complexities of climate change and migration, a weather-related event—whether it’s gradual glacial melting or a sudden superstorm like Sandy—can increase pressures on land, food and water resources. This can subsequently “contribute to existing problems—including food insecurity, malnutrition, poverty, the spread of disease, rapid urbanization and political instability—in areas of the world that already struggle with some of these issues.” In other words, one of global warming’s greatest strengths is how it can make an already strained region more unstable.
Social, political, economic and sectarian strife—combined with more personal issues like family and community ties, as well as financial well-being—influence the choice to start over elsewhere. Climate matters may not be as visible a factor in these decisions, but they certainly play a part.
Consider Syria. You could think of a lot of reasons why someone wouldn’t want to live there right now—ISIS invasions being just one of them. Since the country’s violent upheaval began in 2011, 4.1 million people have sought safety abroad and another 6.5 million are displaced within Syria’s borders. But climate change is hardly an innocent bystander. As a study found earlier this year, Syria and the rest of the region known as the Fertile Crescent underwent the worst drought in modern times between 2007 and 2010—on the eve of the revolution. Periodic dry spells in this area aren’t uncommon, but the researchers conclude that such a severe drought was two to three times more likely to occur under the effects of climate change than in its absence. Additionally, evidence shows that this drought was part of a larger regional warming and drying trend—one that doesn’t correspond to natural climate variability but does to the global rise in greenhouse gases. Climatologist and lead author Colin Kelley notes in an article he cowrote for the International Peace Institute, “three of the four most severe multiyear droughts in Syria’s observed record occurred during the last 30 years, when the rate of global carbon emissions has seen its largest increase.”
The three-year Syrian drought had a catalytic effect, contributing to existing water and agricultural insecurity and causing widespread crop failures and livestock death. As a consequence, approximately 1.5 million people left their homes in rural farming areas for major cities like Damascus, Aleppo and Dara’a. Combined with natural population growth, the country’s cities were already experiencing an influx of refugees from neighboring war-torn Iraq. In just eight years, the urban population rose by 50 percent, placing an untenable burden on resources and adding to social stresses, such as inadequate infrastructure and services, overcrowding and unemployment. To put it mildly, Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, was neglectful in remedying these issues. Following month of protests, the first uprisings began in March 2011.
Climate change didn’t cause the Syrian civil war or today’s refugee crisis. The country was already facing incredible challenges—from a dictatorship to unsustainable land use practices to economic mismanagement—but a severe drought, made worse by climate change, was almost certainly a factor in pushing people over the brink.
As the planet warms, such climate stressors could happen anywhere. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, historical models suggest that the likelihood of being displaced by a disaster today is 60 percent higher than it was four decades ago—and the largest increases in displacement are related to weather- and climate-related hazards. Looking ahead, the report notes, “Climate change, in tandem with people’s increasing exposure and vulnerability, is expected to magnify this trend, as extreme weather events become more frequent and intense in the coming decades.”
In its 2014 fifth assessment report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (which posited as far back as 1990 that “the gravest effects of climate change may be those on human migration”) agrees, saying that climate change will likely increase migration, especially from poorer parts of the world. Areas of sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and South and Southeast Asia could be particularly vulnerable, as are atoll nations in the Indian and Pacific oceans.
World leaders are taking note. “You think migration is a challenge in Europe today because of extremism,” said Secretary of State John Kerry at a conference in August on climate change in the Arctic. “Wait until you see what happens when there’s an absence of water, an absence of food or one tribe fighting against another for mere survival.”
In the same vein, at a meeting of defense ministers in Peru last year, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said, “The loss of glaciers will strain water supplies in several areas of our hemisphere. Destruction and devastation from hurricanes can sow the seeds for instability. Droughts and crop failures can leave millions of people without any lifeline and trigger waves of mass migration.”
During his State of the Union address on Sept. 9, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker urged E.U. nations to push for an “ambitious, robust and binding” climate deal at the upcoming World Climate Summit in Paris, warning that settling for anything less could result in the next migration crisis. “Tomorrow morning we will have climate refugees,” he said. “We need to act now, because we don’t have time to lose.”
A few days earlier, French President François Hollande, sounded a similar alarm. “If we don’t conclude [with a successful climate agreement] … it won’t be hundreds of thousands of refugees in the next 20 years, it will be millions.”
Let’s hope it’s not.
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The last Ice Age eliminated some giant mammals, like the woolly rhino. Conventional thinking initially attributed their extinction to hunting. While overhunting may have contributed, a new study pinpointed a different reason for the woolly rhinos' extinction: climate change.
The last of the woolly rhinos went extinct in Siberia nearly 14,000 years ago, just when the Earth's climate began changing from its frozen conditions to something warmer, wetter and less favorable to the large land mammal. DNA tests conducted by scientists on 14 well-preserved rhinos point to rapid warming as the culprit, CNN reported.
"Humans are well known to alter their environment and so the assumption is that if it was a large animal it would have been useful to people as food and that must have caused its demise," says Edana Lord, a graduate student at the Center for Paleogenetics in Stockholm, Sweden, and co-first author of the paper, Smithsonian Magazine reported. "But our findings highlight the role of rapid climate change in the woolly rhino's extinction."
The study, published in Current Biology, notes that the rhino population stayed fairly consistent for tens of thousands of years until 18,500 years ago. That means that people and rhinos lived together in Northern Siberia for roughly 13,000 years before rhinos went extinct, Science News reported.
The findings are an ominous harbinger for large species during the current climate crisis. As EcoWatch reported, nearly 1,000 species are expected to go extinct within the next 100 years due to their inability to adapt to a rapidly changing climate. Tigers, eagles and rhinos are especially vulnerable.
The difference between now and the phenomenon 14,000 years ago is that human activity is directly responsible for the current climate crisis.
To figure out the cause of the woolly rhinos' extinction, scientists examined DNA from different rhinos across Siberia. The tissue, bone and hair samples allowed them to deduce the population size and diversity for tens of thousands of years prior to extinction, CNN reported.
Researchers spent years exploring the Siberian permafrost to find enough samples. Then they had to look for pristine genetic material, Smithsonian Magazine reported.
It turns out the wooly rhinos actually thrived as they lived alongside humans.
"It was initially thought that humans appeared in northeastern Siberia fourteen or fifteen thousand years ago, around when the woolly rhinoceros went extinct. But recently, there have been several discoveries of much older human occupation sites, the most famous of which is around thirty thousand years old," senior author Love Dalén, a professor of evolutionary genetics at the Center for Paleogenetics, said in a press release.
"This paper shows that woolly rhino coexisted with people for millennia without any significant impact on their population," Grant Zazula, a paleontologist for Canada's Yukon territory and Simon Fraser University who was not involved in the research, told Smithsonian Magazine. "Then all of a sudden the climate changed and they went extinct."
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Transitioning to renewable energy can help reduce global warming, and Jennie Stephens of Northeastern University says it can also drive social change.
For example, she says that locally owned businesses can lead the local clean energy economy and create new jobs in underserved communities.
"We really need to think about … connecting climate and energy with other issues that people wake up every day really worried about," she says, "whether it be jobs, housing, transportation, health and well-being."
To maximize that potential, she says the energy sector must have more women and people of color in positions of influence. Research shows that leadership in the solar industry, for example, is currently dominated by white men.
"I think that a more inclusive, diverse leadership is essential to be able to effectively make these connections," Stephens says. "Diversity is not just about who people are and their identity, but the ideas and the priorities and the approaches and the lens that they bring to the world."
So she says by elevating diverse voices, organizations can better connect the climate benefits of clean energy with social and economic transformation.
Reposted with permission from Yale Climate Connections.
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If weather is your mood, climate is your personality. That's an analogy some scientists use to help explain the difference between two words people often get mixed up.
Size Matters<p>Climates are a bit like woven tapestries. The big picture is important, no question. But so are all the seemingly minor details found inside the larger whole.</p><p><a href="https://research-information.bris.ac.uk/en/persons/tommaso-jucker" target="_blank">Tommaso Jucker</a> is an environmental scientist at the University of Bristol. In an email, Jucker says he'd define the term microclimate as "the suite of climatic conditions (temperature, rainfall, humidity, solar radiation) measured in localized areas, typically near the ground and at spatial scales that are directly relevant to ecological processes."</p><p>We'll talk about that last bit in a minute. But first, there's another criteria to discuss. According to some researchers, a microclimate — by definition — must differ from the larger area that surrounds it.</p><p><a href="https://www.cfc.umt.edu/research/paleoecologylab/publications/Davis_et_al_2019_Ecography.pdf" target="_blank">Forests</a> provide us with some great examples. "The climate near the ground in a tropical rainforest is dramatically different from the climate in the canopy 50 meters [164 feet] above," says University of Montana ecologist <a href="https://www.cfc.umt.edu/personnel/details.php?ID=1110" target="_blank">Solomon Dobrowski</a> in an email. "This vertical gradient among other factors allows for the staggering biodiversity we see in the tropics."</p><p>Likewise, scientists observed that a 2015 partial <a href="https://animals.howstuffworks.com/insects/bees-stopped-buzzing-during-2017-solar-eclipse.htm" target="_blank">solar eclipse</a> caused the air temperature of an Eastern European meadow to <a href="https://rmets.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/wea.2802" target="_blank">change more dramatically</a> than it did in a nearby forest. That's because trees provide not only shade, but their leaves also reflect solar radiation. At the same time, forests tend to reduce wind speeds.</p><p>All those factors add up. A 2019 review of 98 wooded places — spread out across five continents — found that forests are 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit (4 degrees Celsius) <a href="https://natureecoevocommunity.nature.com/posts/47363-forests-protect-animals-and-plants-against-warming" target="_blank">cooler on average</a> than the areas outside them.</p><p>Now if you hate the cold, don't worry; there's a cozy exception to the rule. According to that same study, forests are usually 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit (1 degree Celsius) warmer than the external environment during the wintertime. Pretty cool.</p>
A Bug's Life<p>When does a microclimate stop being, well, micro? In other words, is there a maximum size we should be aware of when discussing them?</p><p>Depends on who you ask. "In terms of horizontal scale, some have defined 'microclimate' as anything that is less than 100 meters [328 feet] in range," Jucker says. "I'm personally less prescriptive about this."</p><p>Instead, he says the "scale at which we want to measure [a particular] microclimate" ought to be "dictated" by the questions we're trying to answer.</p><p>"If I want to know how temperature affects the photosynthesis of a leaf, I should be measuring temperature at centimeter scale," Jucker explains. "If I want to know if and how temperature affects the habitat preference of a large, mobile mammal, it's probably more relevant to capture temperature variation across [tens to hundreds] of meters."</p><p>For instance, solitary plants have the power to generate itty-bitty microclimates. Just ask <a href="https://www.colorado.edu/geography/peter-blanken-0" target="_blank">Peter Blanken</a>, a geography professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder and the co-author of the 2016 book, "<a href="https://amzn.to/2XN6FT8" target="_blank">Microclimate and Local Climate</a>."</p>
The urban heat island effect is a good example of how microclimates work. NOAA
Microclimates on a Grand Scale<p>It's no secret that our planet is going through some rough times at the macro level. The global temperature is <a href="https://climate.nasa.gov/vital-signs/global-temperature/" target="_blank">climbing</a>; nine out of the <a href="https://www.noaa.gov/news/2019-was-2nd-hottest-year-on-record-for-earth-say-noaa-nasa" target="_blank">10 hottest years on record</a> have occurred since 2005. And by one recent estimate, roughly 1 million species around the world are <a href="https://ipbes.net/sites/default/files/2020-02/ipbes_global_assessment_report_summary_for_policymakers_en.pdf" target="_blank">facing extinction</a> due to human activities.</p><p>"One of the big questions that ecologists and environmental scientists are trying to answer right now is how will individual species and whole ecosystems respond to rapid climate change and habitat loss," says Jucker. "...To me, [microclimates are] a key component of this research — if we don't measure and understand climate at the appropriate scale, then predicting how things will change in the future becomes a lot harder."</p><p>Developers have long understood the impact small-scale climates have on our daily lives. <a href="https://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/green-science/urban-heat-island.htm#pt0" target="_blank">Urban heat islands</a> are cities that have higher temperatures than neighboring rural areas.</p><p>Plants release vapors that can moderate local climates. But in cities, natural greenery is often scarce. To make matters worse, plenty of our roads and buildings have a bad habit of absorbing or re-emitting heat from the sun. <a href="https://www.google.com/books/edition/Microclimate_and_Local_Climate/LHUZDAAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&bsq=urban%20heat%20island" target="_blank">Vehicle emissions</a> don't exactly help the situation.</p><p>Still, it's not like Boston or Beijing are thermal monoliths. Sometimes, the documented temperatures <a href="https://e360.yale.edu/features/can-we-turn-down-the-temperature-on-urban-heat-islands" target="_blank">within a single city</a> vary by 15 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit (8.3 to 11.1 degrees Celsius).</p><p>That's where metro parks and city trees come in. They have nice cooling effects on nearby neighborhoods. "Several cities around the world have developed programs to increase urban green spaces," says Blanken. "Tree planting programs and green roof programs, have been shown to lower surface temperatures, decrease air pollution and decrease surface water runoff (urban flash-flooding) in urban areas."</p>
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By Jeff Berardelli
Note: This story was originally published on August 6, 2020
If asked to recall a hurricane, odds are you'd immediately invoke memorable names like Sandy, Katrina or Harvey. You'd probably even remember something specific about the impact of the storm. But if asked to recall a heat wave, a vague recollection that it was hot during your last summer vacation may be about as specific as you can get.
<div id="ecf36" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c2dcc9d48a6cd61f247df1544539a783"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1290959314132361216" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Naming heatwaves is a good idea—making the abstract concrete, the invisible visible. Why should hurricanes and wild… https://t.co/hDWgYb79Ob</div> — Ed Maibach (@Ed Maibach)<a href="https://twitter.com/MaibachEd/statuses/1290959314132361216">1596623660.0</a></blockquote></div>
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