Climate Refugees

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I’ve been thinking about climate refugees for awhile, partly inspired by all those pictures of Dust Bowl refugees from the 1930s.  Floods and famines have forced people to leave their homes for greener pastures throughout recorded history, and presumably before that.  

But nowadays we’ve got a new kind of climate refugee:  Rising sea levels are driving people from their homes in many corners of the planet.  A case in point is the Carteret Islands of Papua New Guinea, a low lying coral atoll, home to 2500 people.  

Cross-posted from DK GreenRoots/Eco-Week at Daily Kos.

CNN did a feature on the subject recently:

They’ve started relocating them to another nearby island, Bougainville, but some returned due to difficult conditions of a local civil war.  This story is repeating all over the small island nations and territories of the South Pacific.  From Hobart Mercury (Australia), 12-26-2000, via Lexis Nexis so I can’t link:

Nothing is likely to save the PNG atoll where each adult has 1000 songs they can sing from memory.

“It’s a vanishing culture,” says University of Auckland’s Richard Moyle.  “When an animal species is threatened we put them in zoos; if a human species is, then what do we do?…

“I asked a few people, will you go will you stay?  The older people said they wanted to stay and I asked them what would happen when the island was underwater.  They said ‘I will die.'”

There’s poetry in the reporting, if no solutions for the islanders.  Times of London, 12-21-06:

It beings with the simple rising of the tide in the lagoon, above the flashing coral, and high up the beach where the thin canoes lie.  Soon water is breaching the frail sea walls and running over the coconut palms and the dusty pathways of the village.  The sea laps at the houses of palm and wood; in the middle of the islands saltwater bubbles up through holes dust by the crabs and flood the fields and gardens until half the land is swallowed up.

Every year, the tidal surges are becoming stronger and more frequent; every month, a few more inches are being eaten away from the shrinking land of the tiny islands.

These are the Carterets, the islands at the beginning of the end of the world.

Once this was a jungle “garden” of banana, breadfruit, papaya, cassava, tapioca, sugarcane and the starchy tuber called taro.  Now it is a slimy, salinated wilderness where only palm trees grow.

Wow.  And we think we’ve got problems here!  Rising sea level comes from two causes.  First, as glaciers melt the water flows to the sea, adding to the amount of water in the oceans.  Additionally, the warmer water becomes, it increases in volume – so the same amount of water molecules take up more space.  And so the islands are taken by the sea.

Sydney Morning Herald, 3/29/02:

Joseph Molocai is worried.  “I got no gardens any more.  I don’t know how we can keep feeding ourselves.” said the old man, who like countless generations of his forefathers, scarches a living on the infertiles sands of Papua New Guinea’s Carteret, or Tulun, Islands.

Mr. Molocai said his people could no longer eat most traditional foods.  “The wild taros, the greens, the breadfuit, they don’t grow any more,” he said.  “We just got coconuts and, when we can catch them, fish.  All the gardens are spoilt.  When the high tide comes in, all the saltwater goes in the gardens.”

Wells, too are contaminated by saltwater intrusion.  So drinking water only comes from what they can catch of rainwater, in season.

But at least the Carteret Islands are part of a larger nation, Papua New Guinea, so they can move to other parts of the country, however imperfect an outcome might result.  But what about independent nations?  For reference, here’s a link to a large map of the South Pacific.  Tuvalu is the lowest lying of these nations, and is expected to be uninhabitable for its 11,600 citizens by mid-century.


Sea level rise is the greatest problem. Tuvalu’s highest elevation is 4.6 meters (15 feet), but most of it is no more than a meter (3.3 feet) above the sea. Several times each year the regular lunar cycle of tides, riding on the ever higher mean sea level, brings the Pacific sloshing onto roads and into neighborhoods. In the center of the larger islands the sea floods out of old barrow pits and even squirts up out of the coral bedrock. Puddles bubble up that eventually cover part of the airport on the main island of Funafuti (inset) and inundate homes that are not along the ocean.

An ancient saying says you cannot stem the tide.  But all over the South Pacific stop gap efforts like sea walls, and planting mangroves have been undertaken to try and save various islands.  The one on the right is on Tuvalu.

But you can’t stem the tide.  The only hope for addressing this problem over the next century for tens of millions of vulnerable people will be to get serious about kicking the carbon addiction.  It’s the only way.

It is predicted that in 50 years or so, the entire nation of Tuvalu be no more.  It will have vanished from the face of the earth.  Kiribati, population 100,000, is facing a similar fate.  Sunday Mail (South Africa), 1/1/06:

Many scientists say a 50cm rise in sea levels could cause a 50m retreat of the coastline in low-lying areas.  The sea would overflow the heavily populated coasts of countries such as Bangladesh, and cause low=lying island states like the Indian Ocean’s Maldives and South Pacific’s Kiribati and Tuvalu to disappear.

“It’s a matter of survival for us.  If our islands go under, we all go under,” said President Anote Tong, of Kiribati, which has 33 low-lying islands spread over five million square kilometers, and is home to about 100,000 people.  “We move back from the shoreline but how far can we move back?  We are in danger of falling off the backside of our islands.”


Mr. Tong said the world’s big polluters, such as the United States and Australia – still outside the UN’s Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gases = must face the consequences.  “That is a question that they have to ask themselves – are they willing to see us go under?”

The Age, Melbourne, Australia, 4/9/09:

The injustice of climate change is that its effects are afalling most heavily on the poor – those who bear the least responsibility for causing the problem and have the least capacity to to adapt.  While a country with a heavy greenhouse footpring such as Australia has the luxury to debate climate change, some low-lying island nations are likely to disappear off the face of the earth altogether.

Case in point, the Carteret Islands.  They don’t have cars, they don’t have an airport, and they don’t have electricity in their homes.  Yet they have been near starvation at many points, relying on relief supplies, and being forced from their homeland.

The Maldives are going carbon neutral, even if it might not be enough to save them (same article from The Age):

Maldives President Mahamed Nasheed has pledged that his country will no longer be part of the “Faustian Pact” the world has with carbon by becomeing the first country to go carbon neutral.  “Today”, he said, “the Maldives will opt out of that pact.”

If the real greenhouse gas producers – Europe, Australia, and most of all the United States – would get on board, the world would be better off.  There’s plenty more could be said about this, but it’s time for this diary to go up, so this will have to do for now.

Other areas affected by sea level rise:


In a 2007 report, the US Geological Survey found that coastal erosion in Alaska has doubled in the last 50 years.  Coastal Alaska Native villages are suffering from a double whammy.  (If you consider melting permafrost, it’s a triple whammy.)  Not only is sea level rising, but shorter seasons of ice cover mean increased coastal erosion due to storms.  The village of Newtok, in the Yukon River delta, is being abandoned to the water.  181 coastal villages in Alaska are threatened with obliteration in the near future.

Flood defences have been tried, and have failed. The river encroaches by around 130ft (40m) each spring and summer, and it might swallow Newtok within a few years. So the villagers have decided to move on.

Stanley turns his back to the village and points across the water to snow-covered hills nine miles away.

“We’re moving across there,” he says. “That’s really solid ground, we’ll be safe from the erosion and flooding.”


“There’ll always be an England”, or so the old saying goes.  But maybe not quite so much of it.  Last summer I did a diary about an assessment being undertaken to determine which farmlands would be abandoned to the sea, on the grounds that it would be too expensive to protect them all, Netherlands-style.  So just a link and picture on that one:


Last, but hardly least, is the lowlying, densely populated land of the Ganges/Bengal Delta.  I did a Lexis/Nexis search and found very little reporting on sea level issues in the Pacific in the American press.  One article was in the Washington Times this past April:

The worlds first climate refugees are thought to be the 500,000 inhabitants of Bhola Island in Bangladesh, who were left homeless after half of the island became permanently flooded in 2005.

Equity’s estimates are more dire than the U.N.-backed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which estimates that 22 million people in Bangladesh will be forced from their homes by 2050 because of climate change.

India is building a fence along its porous 2,500-mile border with Bangladesh, hoping to stop the flow of migrants, many displaced by changes in climate.


Norman Myers(pdf), Oxford University in 2005 summarizes the problem:

There is a new phenomenon in the global arena: environmental refugees.  These are people who can no longer gain a secure livelihood in their homelands because of drought, soil erosion, desertification, deforestation and other environmental problems, together with associated problems of population pressures and profound poverty. In their desperation, these people feel they have no alternative but to seek sanctuary elsewhere, however hazardous the attempt. Not all of them have fled their countries, many being internally displaced. But all have abandoned their homelands on a semi-permanent if not permanent basis, with little hope of a foreseeable return.

He suggests that there could be as many as 50 million of these refugees by next year, with the number going as high as 200 million by the end of the century.  This is not a small problem, and isn’t going away anytime soon.  Anyone who thinks that is a fool.

Perhaps because of the proximity to the 7 million residents of the Pacific Islands in the area, more attention is being paid to this problem in Australian and New Zealand than here in the U.S.  From Lawyers Weekly there, the United States’s fair share of refugees, based on proportion of contribution to greenhouse gases, should be 866,000 refugees per year.  But that’s a matter of moral justice, not law.  Dr. Jane McAdam has been specializing in research in this area of international law:

[I]nternational laws that govern the treatment of refugees were not written with environmental catastrophe in mind, but political, racial, religious or ethnic persecution.  So McAdam says there may need to be a re-think of how the international legal system treats people who have become refugees because their country is no longer habitable.

Some have suggested people who live in areas likely to be rendered uninhabitable by global warming should be offered a form of asylum by countries that have contributed to their situation. The number of environmental refugees the polluters should be required to take would be proportional to their greenhouse gas emissions.

This is not a small problem, and it is not off in some unspecified future.  Ready or not, the early vanguard of some huge displacements is already underway.  It’s past time for the world as a whole, and all of us individually, to get serious about cutting greenhouse emissions.  Greenwashing and empty bloviating won’t do the trick.


    • LoE on July 4, 2009 at 23:56

    But if you don’t face a problem, it ain’t ever gonna get solved.  Sooner or later, those refugees, who don’t officially exist since the UN doesn’t have a category for them, are going to catch everyone’s attention.  Ready or not!

  1. We’ve built a wall across our southern border to keep out economic and climate migrants from moving north. How long will it take before Canada builds the same sort of wall across its southern border?

    The temperate weather and rain is moving north… people will follow.

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