Staying Above Water
More than 30 years ago leading scientists from NASA began warning policymakers that global temperatures were warming as a result of the emissions of carbon and other greenhouse gasses. By the early 1990s, there was a broad and growing consensus within the global scientific community that human emissions of greenhouse gasses were causing significant changes to the global climate.
In the following decades, fossil fuel companies and corporate interests would continue to deny the mounting evidence and even the policymakers who recognized the potentially devastating impacts of global climate change would fail to take decisive action to curb the emissions of greenhouse gasses. At the same time, super storms like hurricanes Katrina and Sandy and Typhoon Haiyan would devastate entire regions, killing thousands and causing hundreds of billions of dollars in damages, providing dramatic examples of the gravity of the risks caused by climate change. Slower onset consequences including multi-year droughts in Somalia, the Sudan and Syria would destabilize entire regions fueling civil conflicts that displaced millions.
After decades of inaction and neglect, the climate crisis is here. Already the rapid warming of the earth is causing changes in weather patterns, increases in both the frequency and occurrence of extreme weather events, sea level rise, floods, droughts, wildfires, and increasing desertification of farmlands .
Together, all of these environmental changes are contributing to localized food shortages and conflict over increasingly scarce resources. Around the world, people are being forced to adapt to the changing environment, fortifying homes to withstand superstorms, changing crop patterns and seeking new sources of food and water. As the effects of catastrophic climate change continue to emerge, it is clear that some of the places that people are currently living will become uninhabitable and others will not be able to support current population levels. In the face of the climate crisis, tens of millions of people will likely use migration as a strategy for adapting to climate change, seeking shelter and sustenance in other parts of the world.
A worst-case scenario for climate-change induced migration could involve entire communities rapidly forced from their homelands by flooding or other severe weather events. But climate-induced migration does not necessarily mean the wholesale abandonment of people’s historic homelands. Instead, families and communities faced with impending changes to their local ecosystems are choosing to adapt to deteriorating environmental conditions by employing a mix of adaptation solutions including redesigning housing structures, adopting new farming techniques or working within family and community units to engage in cyclical labor migration and supporting family members and communities through international remittances.
Already, communities around the world are planning and implementing culturally appropriate adaptation and migration strategies that address their own unique needs and aspirations. Many will choose to move well before their homelands become completely uninhabitable and others will choose to not leave at all. Facing a violently changing world marked by catastrophic events set in motion by the actions of people in wealthy industrialized nations, communities at the front lines of the climate crisis are taking direct action to determine their own futures by making plans and employing a mix of adaptation and migration solutions.
While rich industrialized countries are the ones that have created the climate crisis, people in poor and developing regions are likely to weather the most hardship and suffering. Developed countries should not force people experiencing dramatic changes in their local environments to wait until their communities are devastated by floods, droughts, fires and superstorms before opening our borders and communities.
The arbitrary borders and walls separating people and communities around the world are relics of the very capitalist, colonialist system that generated the climate crisis in the first place. Confronting the challenge of climate change requires not only a just transition away from fossil fuels and the preservation of our shared resources, but also opening our borders to welcome all those who want to live, work, learn, and play alongside us.
As the climate continues to change it is clear that some of the places where people are living will become uninhabitable and others will not be able to support current population levels. What is less clear, however, is the scale and scope of this climate change induced migration. Projections range from tens of millions of migrants at the low end to over one billion migrants at the high end with more common projections falling in the range of 150 to 200 million people .
There are real and serious political implications for each of these estimates. The higher end estimates are often used by advocates of decisive action on climate change to underscore the severity of the climate crisis and its human impacts. But those same estimates are used by military officials in developed countries to illustrate the security threats created by climate-induced migration. At the other end of the spectrum, lower estimates may undersell the actual human impact of climate change (a family does not need to be forced from their home to experience significant impacts of climate change) while projecting a number of migrants that would be much more feasible for receiving countries to accommodate.
The discrepancies in these predictions can partially be attributed to scientific uncertainty about how different local environments will change as the earth warms, but much more of the uncertainty is derived from the complicated nature of climate-induced migration and the degree to which communities at the front lines of the climate crisis are able to adapt to changing conditions.
To be sure, the climate is changing rapidly but it is not changing overnight. The local effects of climate change are largely slow-onset changes occurring amid a mix of other socio-political transformations. For example, three years of uncommonly severe drought in Syria from 2007 to 2010 caused widespread crop failures and contributed to political instability in the region and ultimately the Syrian civil war . While climate change certainly played a role in setting the stage for the conflict and the resulting refugee crisis, the socio-political choices that world leaders had made in the region had already created a situation where the population was incredibly vulnerable to disruptions of a changing climate.
Even in cases where sea level rise is leaving Pacific Islands literally under water, sea level rise will take time and not everyone will need to (or choose to) leave at the same time. Climate change also may not be the only factors leading people to migrate. In one study, people leaving the Bougainville Island in the Pacific Ocean were asked about their reasons for leaving. Nearly all respondents identified both factors that could be directly related to climate change and factors that predated or had clearly arisen independently of climate change .
Throughout human history, communities have faced environmental changes due to natural disasters, droughts, soil erosion and the localized buildup of pollutants. In the case of more modest or incremental changes, the effects have sometimes been requiring no action or limited adaptation measures. As conditions worsen and adaptation becomes increasingly necessary, people’s’ response mechanisms begin to diverge based on their vulnerability to the effects of these environmental changes and their relative ability to adapt. It is not surprising, then, that faced with the exact same set of environmental changes some people would have the ability stay and take adaptive measures, while other, more vulnerable residents would be forced to leave. And the most vulnerable—those without the resources to migrate—will find themselves trapped.
Choosing to leave home and migrate to another part of the world is perhaps the most consequential decision that a person or family can make, fundamentally altering every aspect of their lives. Environmental drivers are just one of the many factors that may lead people to choose to migrate. Alongside these environmental drivers, social, economic, demographic and political factors all play into individuals’ decisions to migrate or their decision to stay .
One of the cruelest aspects of anthropogenic climate change is the fact that the communities who are likely to face the most devastating consequences of the warming planet are the ones who had the least to do with creating the climate crisis. There is a broad scientific consensus that global climate change is being caused by the buildup of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. As these gasses build up, the sun’s energy is able to reach the earth’s surface but when it is reflected back out, it becomes trapped the way that a greenhouse traps heat keeping plants warm. The most significant greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide a byproduct of burning fossil fuels for energy that has been rapidly accumulating in the atmosphere since the onset of the industrial revolution.
Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries countries in North America and Europe built wealthy industrial economies by burning millions of pounds of fossil fuels to power factories, fuel cars, and trucks, and provide commercial and residential electricity. At the same time, a handful of oil-rich states also amassed enormous wealth by selling crude oil on the world market. More recently emerging economic powers including Brazil, Russia, India, and China have built out their industrial bases joining the list of the top carbon emitters .
Today, the wealthy industrialized countries that built their economies by burning fossil fuels and sending millions of pounds of carbon into the atmosphere have the wealth and resources to adapt to the violent effects of climate change by building build seawalls and other infrastructure to protect cities and securing food supplies by purchasing food on the global market. Poorer countries that did not reap the economic benefits of the carbon-burning based economy, meanwhile, do not have the resources to fortify their cities to protect against rising sea levels and increasingly violent storms or import food or drinking water as changing weather patterns degrade their farmlands and water supplies.
The people that are most vulnerable to climate change, who will experience the most significant effects and have the most limited abilities to adapt in place or migrate, are those living in the poorest, least developed regions of the world. This experience—living in a world that is rapidly and violently changing because of the callous behaviors of people in rich developed countries—could be understood as the epitome of powerlessness and helplessness. But even in this perfect storm of environmental calamities and indifference, communities on the front lines of the climate crisis are taking direct action to control their futures by making bold, creative, innovative plans to adapt and to migrate in ways that are culturally appropriate and address their own needs and aspirations.