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Climate refugees

By Mike Pope - posted Tuesday, 15 November 2011

What is our policy on climate refugees? Simple. We don't have a policy. Why? Because we are not confronted with climate refugees seeking "asylum" on our shores – at least not yet. That doesn't mean we won't be, probably a lot sooner than most people think, certainly within 20 years, so it is worth considering who are climate refugees and how we should treat them.

Climate refugees are those who are confronted with conditions which make life unsustainable in their homeland because of the effects of climate. These effects include inundation and erosion, loss of fresh water and lack of affordable food due to sea level rise, ocean pollution including acidification, over-fishing and climate change caused by global warming. It could also include more frequent and increasingly severe and destructive climate events. Some people, threatened by food shortage will seek refuge in a country, such as Australia, where the essentials of life: fresh water, food and housing are available and perceived as being relatively plentiful.

Rising sea level


A sea level rise of around 2m this century is inevitable and can no longer be avoided, even if all greenhouse gas emissions ceased immediately. It will cause massive loss of property, infrastructure, arable land and pollute fresh water along most coastlines, though significant damage seems unlikely before 2050. Low lying islands, coastlines and river deltas will be the first to be affected.

The inhabitants of low lying islands in the Torres Straits will be forced to move to larger islands due to salination of fresh water sources and flooding of arable land, rendering them unproductive. By mid century, all island communities in the Pacific will be affected to some extent, causing populations to become more concentrated and live off decreasing areas of land - or immigrate.

Over 70 percent of the worlds population lives on or near continental coastlines. By 2050 all will be affected to varying degrees by rising sea levels. Some land such as that bordering the northern Gulf of Mexico and the North Sea are likely to be permanently lost due to erosion and more extensive flooding whenever extreme climate events occur. Before 2100 billions will be forced to move to higher ground further inland.

Even more vulnerable are the hundreds of millions who now live on and cultivate the fertile land of the worlds great river deltas. They include the deltas of the Nile, Ganges, Mekong, Yangste-Kiang and many more. All deltas will become prone to flooding, particularly during extreme climate events and increasingly so after 2030.

Not only do deltas support large populations, they produce grain crops and a variety of other food needed to sustain far larger urban populations living in their hinterland. Flooding of deltas and low coastal lands threaten much larger populations. Flooding and salination of the Nile delta would threaten the viability of Cairo, Alexandria and a population of over 50 million, a population which even now can not be fed and watered by the Nile Valley and Delta alone.

Climate change


We are already beginning to see the effects of climate change and extreme weather events on food production. In 2010 they contributed to the loss of a third of the Russian grain harvest, forcing the cancellation of its wheat exports, pushing up the world price of staple grains and causing scarcity, reduced nutrition and increased hunger among more vulnerable populations.

Loss of crops due to flooding in Pakistan, China and Korea have reduced food production on which 100 million rely and the wheat crop of northern India is in decline. Crop production in California's Central Valley is falling because insufficient water is available to meet the needs of irrigators and burgeoning urban communities. Why? Because glaciers of the Sierra Nevada are shrinking due to rising temperatures, yielding less surface water and failing to replenish aquifers quicker than they are being pumped.

These are only the early symptoms of the effects of climate change caused by global warming which has so far seen a rise in temperature of over 1°C since 1900. Failure to curb greenhouse gas emissions is likely to result in a 3°-4°C rise in temperature by 2100, increasing the severity and frequency of extreme climate events which are likely to reduce ability to produce the food needed to sustain rapidly growing populations.

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About the Author

Mike Pope trained as an economist (Cambridge and UPNG) worked as a business planner (1966-2006), prepared and maintained business plan for the Olympic Coordinating Authority 1997-2000. He is now semi-retired with an interest in ways of ameliorating and dealing with climate change.

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