Climate Change Refugees

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The effect of human influence in the emission of greenhouse gases has affected the earth immensely. It has led to unpredictable changes in weather patterns, a rise in sea levels and an increase of extreme weather events across the earth. These disparities in weather conditions endanger the safety of many, prompting them to consider relocation or forcing them to relocate and join the global march of climate change refugees.

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This research paper will examine the impact climate change has on displacement and migration by examining five different areas around the world and their affected communities. These areas include the Small Islands, the Arctic, Bangladesh, Lake Poop?? and the River Deltas. Based on climate projections that predict major changes in the world’s weather, the number of climate change refugees is expected to grow in the near future, which is why understanding the impact global warming has on displacement, is key to prepare and possibly prevent anyone else from becoming a climate change refugee.

Climate change has become one of the most downplayed threats of this century. The disbelief surrounding the subject prevents many world leaders from taking action and reducing the emission of greenhouse gases. This disbelief comes not from lack of evidence, but lack of reception since many decide to believe information and sources that reinforce their views rather than challenge them (DiMento). Proving that climate change is to blame for many of the current natural disasters and displacing events is difficult, but there is significant evidence that shows the correlation between human activity and global warming. There is no doubt that the industrial activities that modern civilizations depend on have warmed the earth. Evidence shows they have raised CO2 levels from 280 parts per million to 400 parts per million in the last 150 years (Global Climate). These warmer temperatures created by the expansion of the greenhouse effect, lead to various alterations in the world, including the melting of glaciers, the rise of sea levels, the change in precipitation patterns, heatwaves, droughts and stronger hurricanes among other extreme weather events. The destruction and devastation caused by these events become the forcing factor in the displacement and migration of millions of people, referred to as climate change refugees.

Across the globe, many communities fall under this category of refugees, and for many familiar, with the term, the first thing that may come to mind is the small, low-lying island nations of the Pacific. Due to their low elevation, these small islands become easy targets for the slow rise of the sea. In fact, the world’s first climate change refugee is considered to be the small island of Kiribati. Located in the Central Pacific, this island stands at six feet above sea level and has a population of approximately 100,000 people (Pilkey). While the island is bordered by a seawall to prevent the worst of the ocean waves brought by storm surges from flooding into the shoreline and eroding the land, parts of this wall have already been destroyed by ocean waves riding high tides (Wennersten). Recent climate models show ocean levels are expected to increase five or six feet by the year 2100, meaning the island will be flooded. When the water rises, their roads will be washed away, erosion will decrease their food supply and the increase of temperatures will lead to stronger king tides hitting the island and giving rise to diseases such as dengue and ciguatera poisoning (Ives). Because of these speculations and the storm surges that are already taking claim of some of the island’s land, the people of Kiribati made the choice to buy land on Fiji and migrate with dignity while there is still time.

Migrating and relocating is the plan adopted by many of the small islands being affected by the rising sea levels. The island of Tuvalu, located between Australia and Hawaii, is also one of the small islands that has already begun to look into relocation. The small island has an altitude of 6 feet above sea level and a population of 394,000 (Wennersten). For the people of Tuvalu, relocation is not an option, considering how experts predict their island will disappear completely between the next 30 to 50 years. Because of the constant flooding and the chance of their island’s extinction, Tuvalu has made an arrangement with New Zealand to relocate its citizens there once the rising sea levels overtake the country (Wennersten). Moreover, some islands have already begun relocation, starting with the Carteret Islands, who began evacuating in 2003. The small island, with a population of 1,770, and an elevation above sea level of almost 5 feet, was the victim of flooding at a rapid rate due to sea levels rising and the land tectonically sinking. Relocation has not been easy for many of the Islanders since their people have lived on the island for more than 200 years. Even today, many of the citizens have not yet embraced relocation and some return back home after struggling to adjust to living in a jungle rather than an atoll (Pilkey).

The reluctance to relocate is shared by many of the islanders including those from the Marshall Islands near the equator, which stands at 7 feet above sea level with a population of 70,000. These islands are considered to be the most endangered by climate change since the communities have no way of managing the constant flooding caused by high tides and rising sea levels. A study done in 2015 by CNN, stated that if the earth warmed by two degrees, the Marshall Islands would cease to exist (Wennersten). The threat of global warming has made the country spring into action and take the issues into their own hand. Currently, the country is undergoing a bizarre migration event by relocating 15% of its population to Springdale, Arkansas. Despite these events, many of Marshallese residents have not yet resigned to the idea of leaving their home and instead have decided to stay put and fight climate change and urge others to do the same. Among those islands that are willing to fight climate change is the Maldives.

Standing at no more than 6 feet above sea level, the Maldives is considered to be the lowest country on earth. Due to erosion, fourteen of the Maldivian islands had to abandon their homes back in 2012, and under the presidency of Mohamed Nasheed, the island became a poster child of climate change. Refusing to let their country drown, Nasheed sought to buy land and relocate while using the danger the island was facing to advocate and encourage others to fight climate change. When the country changed presidents, and Abdulla Yameen took over, the stand against climate change continued, but instead of relocating, the Maldives decided to stay put and resist rising sea levels with geoengineering projects that sought to create resisting and enduring islands (Wennersten). Such projects are thought to be the possible solution for the effects of global warming, yet not every community has the resources to afford these mitigation techniques.

The rise in sea levels has become a serious threat for many communities that share a border with the sea. The affected communities are not just the ones located in the Pacific but can also be found close to the source of the rising sea levels. Global warming has caused Arctic ice to melt and slip away at a dramatic rate. There has been a decline in ice that is older than 5 years, and an increase of younger ice. This ice breaks up easily and allows heat to escape to the atmosphere, which causes higher ocean temperatures (Pilkey). For decades the Arctic ice has been melting, causing flooding and erosion to more than 200 native Alaskan villages. One of the affected is the village of Shishmaref.

In 2016, the villagers of Shishmaref had to face the tough the decision of voting to relocate to safer ground. The safety of the small community of 600 people is currently at risk of flooding and erosion which has already caused the loss of homes, water systems and the collapse of many structures. Despite the land being unsafe and uninhabitable, relocation for the villagers will not come easy, as they lack the government support and organization as well as funding to pay for the cost of relocation, estimated to be $180 million (Malo). The cost of relocation and the cost of mitigating techniques are high, and this further affects the communities being impacted as the major victims of climate change, are the poor developing countries and communities that have minimum influence on climate change.

Approximately 1,800 miles north of the Maldives, stands Bangladesh, a poor low-lying nation being inundated along its 440-mile coastline. With a population of 14 million, the displacement of Bangladesh poses a humanitarian and political threat for the world (Pilkey). Because of its lack of resources, Bangladesh does not count with the technology used by others to mitigate the effects of flooding and instead undergoes the overflow and inundation of more than 20% of its land every year. Its location makes it a principal victim to climate change since three Himalayan rives converge in the country and meander to the sea through the Ganges Delta, giving the risk of inundation and saltwater intrusion should the sea level rise by 3 feet. This event would displace tens of millions to surrounding countries, including India who does not have the resources to cope with this amount of immigration, causing political tension (Pilkey).

The risks of climate change come from various sorts of extreme weather events. For most of the communities discussed so far, flooding was the major contributor to relocate. Yet, in Lake Poop??, Bolivia, the Uru-Murato were forced to move due to drought, that took away their beloved lake. Once a majestic lake, the lake dried up because of the rise in temperature, the pumping of water for farming and the silting of mining sediment (Casey). With the drying of the lake, the fish and birds went away and the Uru-Murato people had no choice but to relocate. With the movement, the Uru-Murato lost more than just their homes, since they lost their cultural identity as well. They went from generations of fisherman to mine workers and farmers. Their tales and knowledge that centered around the lake, were no longer relevant once the lake was gone and they had to learn to adapt to their new uncertain future as climate change refugees.

While many are unaware of the term climate change refugees, in the future entire villages, towns, and island nations could join the flood of refugees since predictions vary between 50 million to 200 million climate change refugees by the year 2050 (Pilkey). These predictions center on the fact that many dense populations gather around River Deltas, which provide a rich agricultural soil to support life (Impacts). Their proximity to rivers and the sea, however, make them hotspots meaning they highly sensitive to sea-level rises (Baker). An analysis done in 2006 by Ericson, estimated that nearly 300 million people inhabit a sample of 40 deltas globally meaning most of these populations are in danger of facing the same flooding, and crisis that Bangladesh is facing currently, and risk the possibility of being displaced. The problems that come from displacement, go beyond the movement itself but what it means for the affected communities. For the undeveloped countries, migrating to developed countries will come with many challenges as their herding and farming skills are not relevant to urban areas (Pilkey). In addition, the challenges these communities will face also include adjusting to new laws, languages, and cultures, which can lead to conflict between the refugees and the native population when customs clash. The certainty of what can happen, and the unpreparedness of the world is alarming.

Although the areas covered in this study are spread around the world with each centered on different communities with different cultures and customs, they all share similarities. For the people of Kiribati, Carteret, Tuvalu, Marshall and Maldives, the islands at stake are more than just a vacation destination. The people of these communities rely on passed-down cultural knowledge and natural resources for survival and they maintain a deep connection to the environment that comes from knowledge acquired over centuries (Pilkey). Similarly, the communities in the Arctic, such as the village of Shishmaref in Alaska, have inhabited the land for over 5,000 years, carrying on the legacy of their ancestors and lifestyle of hunter-gatherers which is a core part of their existence (Pilkey). When facing no other option but to migrate, these communities face the same struggles that the Uru-Murato people of Lake Poop??, Bolivia, faced when their beloved lake disappeared. Years of traditions and customs ended when the lake vanished. Fisherman became exploited hands in mines or struggling farmers in a dying land. The toll of losing everything they knew impacted them emotionally, making them feel clueless and homesick as they struggled to adapt to their new conditions. The challenges faced by these communities’ center around the sudden loss of safety and certainty, as well as the uncertainty of how they will acquire the economic means to ensure a future. Some of these communities, such as the village of Bangladesh, do not count with the economic means to cope with the results of climate change.

Based on the predictions and the amount of displacement expected, the world itself may not be ready to cope with the impacts that climate change will have if nothing is done now. The effects of climate change are global and affect everyone in various ways. From flooding to droughts, threatening developed and undeveloped countries. The impact it has and whom it affects may differ but, in the end, the victims all share the same loss. Climate change has had a big impact on the displacement and relocation of many communities around the globe. It has claimed many homes and created many climate refugees, and the impact cannot be ignored any longer.

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