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The tide is turning

  • Written by  Mark Rowe
  • Published in Climate
The tide is turning Joerg Boethling/Alamy
01 Mar
Extreme weather, rising sea levels and slowly altering local climates are affecting an increasing number of people around the world, from the Pacific to the Arctic. Even the West is feeling the pinch

Last autumn, in a New Zealand court room, Ioane Teitiota came close – but not close enough – to becoming the world’s first legally recognised climate refugee. Teitiota argued that rising sea levels had forced him to leave his home country, Kiribati, citing as evidence the fact that parts of his South Pacific island nation were substantially under water, to the extent that the dead could no longer be buried. The problem is so acute that the Kiribati government has purchased about 2,200 hectares of land from its nearest neighbour, Fiji, in order to guarantee its food security as its own arable land is swamped by rising tides.

The case was rejected by a High Court judge, but Teitiota is one of a host of displaced people seeking such status in courts around the world. The Pacific islands and Australasia are among those on the front line of climate change, and 2012 saw 129,000 people in the region forced from their homes, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) and the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC). This included displacement caused by flood and storm disasters in Papua New Guinea, Fiji and Australia.

Last autumn, several Pacific island presidents called on the UN General Assembly to mitigate the impacts of climate change already felt by their nations. ‘Low-lying island nations such as mine are already paying the earliest costs of what is fast becoming a global crisis,’ said the president of the Marshall Islands, Christopher Loeak. Meanwhile, Anote Tong, the president of Kiribati, told the UN gathering that ‘we want our people to have the option to migrate with dignity should the time come that migration is unavoidable. And all the science is telling us that it is just a matter of time.’

Elsewhere in the Pacific, people are already being forced to move. Papua New Guinea’s Carteret Islands are home to 1,000 people. The islands’ high point is just 1.7 metres above sea level, and due to coastal erosion and inundation by salt water, most of the small gardens of swamp taro and vegetables upon which families depend for food are no longer fertile. After several unsuccessful attempts to move the islanders, authorities have identified a plantation on Bougainville as a future resettlement site.



Beyond the Pacific, the number of people on the move around the globe – either because of extreme weather, rising sea levels or a slowly altering local climate – is staggering. According to the IDMC’s Global Estimates 2012 report, 32.4 million people were forced to abandon their homes in the face of floods, storms and earthquakes. Such disasters, the report notes, have doubled from about 200 a year to more than 400 over the past two decades, although it can’t say what proportion could be attributed directly – and solely – to climate change.

‘We know that climate change is happening, we can say that confidently,’ says Nina M Birkeland, a senior adviser on disasters and climate change at the NRC. ‘What we can’t prove is that people in a given country are being displaced or migrating because of a given sudden event, but human migration and climate change are coming together; climate change is a strong driver.’

The report found that in 2011, 14.9 million people were displaced within their own borders throughout the world due to natural disasters, mostly related to weather events such as floods and storms. Some 89 per cent of the displacement occurred in Asia. The report concluded that the impacts of climate change, such as changing rainfall patterns and increases in temperature, combined with rapid population growth, suggest that more and more people are likely to be affected by displacement.

‘A major issue is the degree of vulnerability of those who rely on fisheries and agriculture for their livelihoods as the environment in which they’re working becomes more marginal and compromised,’ says the IDMC’s Justin Ginnetti. ‘The risk of being killed [by a disaster] has been steadily declining, so with populations growing, that means more people migrating.’

An astonishing 98 per cent of all displacement in 2012 was related to climate- and weather-related events, with flood disasters in India and Nigeria accounting for 41 per cent of global displacement that year. In India, monsoon floods displaced 6.9 million people, and in Nigeria, 6.1 million people were newly displaced.

Central America is also feeling the squeeze, as more frequent floods and landslides affect farmers. ‘The territory is already crowded and there are already some migration issues,’ says Marine Franck, the Nansen Initiative officer at the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. ‘Climate change is exacerbating the problem, and people need to cross borders.’

What are termed ‘slow onset’ events – long-term droughts or changes in weather patterns –are also starting to have an effect. The NRC is deploying a model to look at the impact of these events on displacement in the Horn of Africa and elsewhere. ‘Pastoralists in Kenya haven’t really been seen as displaced as they are always on the move,’ says Birkeland, ‘but what we now see are these pastoralists having to leave their livelihoods behind and ending up in slums in urban areas.’



Some of the greatest changes in climate and its impact on humans are in the Arctic. ‘I see major things happening in the big picture in the Arctic,’ says Dr Grete K Hovelsrud, senior researcher at the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo. ‘From the melting of the sea ice to the frequency of extreme weather events and the melting of the permafrost – these all have consequences and impacts on people.’

In particular, Hovelsrud and her colleagues have documented severe flooding in northern Russia as a result of melting ice and greater precipitation that, Hovelsrud says, ‘is consistent with climate change’.

According to Survival International, as the Arctic permafrost melts, the indigenous reindeer-herding Nenets, who have lived in northwest Siberia for more than 1,000 years, face a double threat to their migratory ways of life – from climate change and resource extraction. During winter, when temperatures can drop to –50°C, most Nenets graze their reindeer on moss and lichen pastures in the southern forests. In summer, they migrate north to cross the frozen waters of the Ob River, heading for the Kara Sea, a distance of up to 1,000 kilometres.

The ice now melts earlier in the spring and freezes much later in the autumn, Survival International contends, forcing herders to change centuries-old migration patterns: the reindeer find it difficult to walk over a snowless tundra, and rising temperatures also affect the tundra’s vegetation, the reindeer’s only source of food. And melting permafrost has caused some of the tundra’s freshwater lakes to drain, which will lead to a decline in the Nenets’ supply of fish.

The Inuit, the indigenous peoples who inhabit the Arctic regions of Greenland, Canada and the USA, are also feeling the impact of climate change. Increasingly variable spring weather conditions and changes in the rate at which the ice melts in spring are affecting access to traditional hunting and fishing camps. And because both the weather and the ice melt are becoming more unpredictable, travel and hunting are becoming more dangerous. ‘It has become so serious that several coastal villages are now actively trying to figure out where to move entire communities,’ Patricia Cochran, an Inuit leader, wrote in a BBC opinion piece in 2007.

Even food storage has been affected by warmer temperatures. Outdoor meat caches, which used to remain well preserved in the cold, now spoil.

Last summer and autumn, the islanders of Saint Lawrence in western Alaska, had to be assisted by authorities. Traditionally, they catch 20 walruses for food every year, but by the autumn of last year, they had caught just two because of a lack of sea ice. ‘The food is expensive to ship or fly in, and in any case, they have no income,’ says Professor Tom Arnbom, an Arctic biologist with WWF.

‘People I meet in northwest Greenland unanimously say the melting sea ice means they can only hunt for two months of the year, where they used to hunt for six,’ says Hovelsrud.

‘In the north, it’s easier to adapt than further south, because they have so many resources,’ he continues. ‘But there are side effects, stresses that add to the uncertainty. They can adapt, but it’s the fact that they have to adapt. They have to use boats rather than dogs, but it’s safer to travel on ice than on water between broken bits of ice.

‘In the late 1990s, seal hunters were everywhere in northwest Greenland. Now they fish for halibut,’ he concludes. ‘It’s a question we need to think about. The cultural element is changing – that’s very dynamic, it means people can continue to live in a place they want to live. But it’s a signal of something grander going on around the planet as a result of global warming.’



The focus of much of the climate change debate is on the developing world, but some experts argue that we shouldn’t overlook events closer to home. The IDMC report documents how 2.5 million people were displaced in high-income countries between 2008 and 2012. The USA appears among the top ten countries with the highest levels of new displacement, with more than 900,000 people forced to flee their homes in 2012 by events such as Hurricane Sandy.

‘There’s an enormous amount of infrastructure in the West that’s just in the wrong place or has been built for much smaller populations,’ says Cleo Paskal, an associate fellow at Chatham House. ‘You just have to look at the floods in Germany [last June] and the UK, and Hurricane Sandy [in the USA] to see that.

‘The key factor is insurance,’ she continues. ‘That’s starting to determine where you live, and how you live. Fundamentally, the West is broke, and we can’t afford major redesigns and infrastructure. This, in turn, affects the West’s ability to pay for the US$100billion infrastructure fund that’s supposed to mitigate climate change around the world. There are already tens of thousands of people in the UK who can’t sell their homes because of flooding, who are seeing their quality of life dropping and who can’t sell their main asset.

‘This is having a cascading effect,’ she concludes. ‘France is having to shut down nuclear reactors because it can’t get enough water from rivers, so it has to look to Russia for energy – which strengthens Russia’s geopolitical position. And [Hurricane] Katrina saw a huge number of refugees move into Texas, which led to a spike in murder rates and mental health problems.’

The wider impacts of these shifts shouldn’t be underestimated, says Pascal, who points to First Nation people in New Brunswick, Canada, who lit tyre fires in protest against plans for fracking last winter. ‘These aren’t passive victims, they are smart people who are now desperate,’ she says. ‘These are indications of social disruption.’

This story was published in the March 2014 edition of Geographical Magazine

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