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Evacuees wait to board a bus as they are evacuated by local and state government officials before the arrival of Hurricane Laura on August 26, 2020 in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Joe Raedle / Getty Images

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.

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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This image of the Santa Monica Mountains in California shows how a north-facing slope (left) can be covered in white-blooming hoaryleaf ceanothus (Ceanothus crassifolius), while the south-facing slope (right) is much less sparsely covered in a completely different plant. Noah Elhardt / Wikimedia Commons / CC by 2.5

By Mark Mancini

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.

By Mark Mancini

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.


In other words, weather exists in the short term. It’s the state of the atmosphere in a specific area during a limited period (think minutes, hours, days or weeks). Climate, meanwhile, describes long-term average weather trends.

And if you’re interested in the latter, you’d better know geography: Our global climate is made up of smaller regional climates. Break those down and you’ll find local variations at just about every conceivable scale.

That brings us to microclimates, an amazing subject with broad applications for farming, conservation, wildlife management and city planning.

Size Matters

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.

Tommaso Jucker 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.”

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.

Forests 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 Solomon Dobrowski in an email. “This vertical gradient among other factors allows for the staggering biodiversity we see in the tropics.”

Likewise, scientists observed that a 2015 partial solar eclipse caused the air temperature of an Eastern European meadow to change more dramatically 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.

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) cooler on average than the areas outside them.

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.

A Bug’s Life

When does a microclimate stop being, well, micro? In other words, is there a maximum size we should be aware of when discussing them?

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.”

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.

“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.”

For instance, solitary plants have the power to generate itty-bitty microclimates. Just ask Peter Blanken, a geography professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder and the co-author of the 2016 book, “Microclimate and Local Climate.”

“A single stalk of corn can create its own microclimate through the shading and changes in soil properties in the immediate vicinity of the stalk,” Blanken says via email. “For a field of corn, the microclimate created would be much larger, extending over the entire field,” Blanken says via email.

Many organisms eke out a living in some of the dinkiest microclimates you can imagine.

Take aphids, spider mites and leaf miner insects. All those critters are dwarfed by the plant leaves they feed on. And every leaf comes with its own microclimate. Observations show that aphids seek out cooler leaves while those other invertebrates prefer warmed ones.

Because none of these animals can generate their own body heat, leaf microclimates have a critical effect on their well-being.

The urban heat island effect is a good example of how microclimates work. NOAA

Microclimates on a Grand Scale

It’s no secret that our planet is going through some rough times at the macro level. The global temperature is climbing; nine out of the 10 hottest years on record have occurred since 2005. And by one recent estimate, roughly 1 million species around the world are facing extinction due to human activities.

“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.”

Developers have long understood the impact small-scale climates have on our daily lives. Urban heat islands are cities that have higher temperatures than neighboring rural areas.

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. Vehicle emissions don’t exactly help the situation.

Still, it’s not like Boston or Beijing are thermal monoliths. Sometimes, the documented temperatures within a single city vary by 15 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit (8.3 to 11.1 degrees Celsius).

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.”

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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There are plenty of things you can do every day to help reduce greenhouse gases and your carbon footprint to make a less harmful impact on the environment. ipopba / Getty Images

By Katie Lambert and Sarah Gleim

The United Nations suggests that climate change is not just the defining issue of our time, but we are also at a defining moment in history. Weather patterns are changing and will threaten food production, and sea levels are rising and could cause catastrophic flooding across the globe. Countries must make drastic actions to avoid a future with irreversible damage to major ecosystems and planetary climate.

By Katie Lambert and Sarah Gleim

The United Nations suggests that climate change is not just the defining issue of our time, but we are also at a defining moment in history. Weather patterns are changing and will threaten food production, and sea levels are rising and could cause catastrophic flooding across the globe. Countries must make drastic actions to avoid a future with irreversible damage to major ecosystems and planetary climate.


But what about individuals? What can we do to pitch in and help save the Earth? There are plenty of things you can do every day to help reduce greenhouse gases and your carbon footprint to make a less harmful impact on the environment. Taking care of the Earth is not just a responsibility, it’s a necessity. ­In that spirit, HowStuffWorks has come up with 10 things you can do now to help save the planet.

1. Conserve Water

The little things can make a big difference. Every time you turn off the water while you’re brushing your teeth, you’re doing something good. Got a leaky faucet? You might be dripping as much as 90 gallons (340 liters) of water down the drain every day [source: EPA]. So fix it! It’s easy and cheap. And stop drinking bottled water. Switch to filtered tap water. You’ll save a ton of cash and help reduce a ton of plastic waste in the process.

2. Be Car-conscious

If you can, stay off the road two days a week or more. You’ll reduce greenhouse gas emissions by an average of 1,590 pounds (721 kilograms) per year [source: EPA]. It’s easier than you think. You can combine your errands — hit the school, grocery store and dog daycare in one trip. And talk to your boss about teleworking. It’s a boon for you and your company. But being car conscious also means maintaining your car on a regular basis. You can improve your gas mileage by 0.6 percent to 3 percent by keeping your tires inflated to the proper pressure, and be sure to make necessary repairs if your car fails emission [source: EPA].

3. Walk, Bike or Take Public Transit

Walking and biking are obvious ways to reduce greenhouse gases. Plus you’ll get some good cardio and burn some calories while you do it. If you live in an area that’s not walkable, take advantage of your local mass transit if you can. Or carpool. Even one car off on the road makes a difference.

4. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

You can help reduce pollution just by putting that soda can in the recycling bin. It really does make a difference. Paper, too. Case in point: If an office building of 7,000 workers recycled all of its office paper waste for a year, it would be the equivalent of taking almost 400 cars off the road [source: EPA]. But you can also take reusable bags to the grocery, and avoid using disposable plates, spoons, glass, cups and napkins. They create huge amounts of waste. And buy products that are made of recycled materials. It all makes a difference.

5. Give Composting a Try

In 2015, (the last year figures were available) Americans generated 262.4 million tons (238 metric tons) of trash. Only 23.4 million tons (21.2 metric tons) of that was composted. Some was recycled and some was combusted for energy, but almost half of it — 137.7 million tons (124.9 metric tons) — ended up in the landfill. Imagine if you could divert more of that to your own compost? It would help reduce the amount of solid waste you produce, and what eventually winds up in your local landfill. Plus, compost makes a great natural fertilizer.

6. Switch to LEDs

Compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) are great. They can last 10 times longer than incandescent bulbs and they use at least two-thirds less energy, but even CFLS have issues. They’re hard to dispose of because they contain mercury. Enter light-emitting diode, or LED bulbs. They emit light in a very narrow band wavelength so they’re super energy-efficient. Start replacing your old incandescent bulbs with LED bulbs now (if you haven’t already). They do cost more than CFLs and incandescents, but equivalent LED bulbs can last around 25,000 hours compared to the 1,000 hours that incandescent bulb might have lasted.

7. Live Energy Wise

Make your home more energy efficient (and save money). Your home’s windows are responsible for 25 to 30 percent of residential heat gain and heat loss. If they’re old and inefficient, consider replacing them. Also be sure your home has proper insulation. Insulation is measured in terms of its thermal resistance or R-value — the higher the R-value, the more effective the insulation. The amount of insulation your home needs depends on the climate, type of HVAC system, and where you’re adding the insulation. Smaller things you can do right away include replacing your air filter regularly so your HVAC system doesn’t have to work overtime. Keep your window treatments closed when it’s extremely hot and cold outside. You can also consider installing a programmable thermostat like Nest so your system isn’t running (and wasting energy) when you’re not home.

8. Eat Sustainable Foods

Today, large-scale food production accounts for as much as 25 percent of the greenhouse emissions. So how do you eat sustainably? Choosing food from farmers that aim to conserve the natural resources and have as little impact on the land as possible. But even buying as much as you can from local farmers makes a different. Eating more whole grains, vegetables, fruits and nuts, and less red meats and processed foods does too. Grow your own fruits and vegetables. You can grow a garden!

9. Plant a Tree (or Two)

In 2018 the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, the U.N. suggests an additional 2.5 billion acres (1 billion hectares) of forest in the world could limit global warming to 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius) by 2050. That’s a lot of trees, but you could plant one or two, right? One young tree can absorb CO2 at a rate of 13 pounds (5 kilograms) per tree. Every. Single. Year. And that’s just an itty bitty baby tree. Once that tree reaches about 10 years old, it’s at its most productive stage of carbon storage. Then it can absorb 48 pounds (21 kilograms) of CO2 per year. Trees also remove all other kinds of junk from the air, including sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and small particles. So go ahead, plant a tree. It’s good for everybody.

10. Give Up Plastics

The statistics are shocking: People around the world buy 1 million plastic drinking bottles every minute, and use up to 5 trillion single-use plastic bags every year. Humans are addicted to plastic, and hardly any of it — about 9 percent — gets recycled. A staggering 8 million tons (7.25 metric tons) ends up in the ocean every year. Break the cycle. Stop buying bottled water. Say no to plastic shopping bags and use cloth bags instead. Don’t use plastic straws. Drink from a reuseable cup instead of a plastic one. Avoiding plastic can divert a ton of waste from the oceans and landfill.

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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