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Can Climate Refugees Have Hope?

Yes. Not all news is dire for potential climate change migrants.

Human-caused climate change is, without a doubt, significantly impacting us and the planet now. How much does it affect or force migration?

We have just published two new scientific articles (in the references below), which show that "climate refugees" or "climate migrants" are far from inevitable. This is especially the case for islanders, who are too often labeled against their will as "canaries in the coal mine" for climate change.

Source: Ilan Kelman
Low-lying islands (here, in the Maldives) will not inevitably vanish due to climate change.
Source: Ilan Kelman

Low-lying islands—these supposedly idyllic atolls with palm tree shadows gracing the placid beaches—are variously presented as drowning, sinking, and eroding due to climate change impacts. The awful result, as this line of thinking claims, is that the poor, vulnerable, miserable islanders must flee their ravaged lands, overrunning us and our homes.

As well as this narrative instilling fear about and demonizing migrants, the current legal definition of refugee involves having "well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion." No environmental reasons are listed. Definitions can change, but for now, it is not possible to be a climate refugee, a climate change refugee, or an environmental refugee.

Nonetheless, migration certainly happens for environmental reasons, alongside many other factors. It is particularly true for islanders, whose culture often embraces population movements. They originally reached their islands through a sense of adventure, exploration, and opportunity, related in the rich tales of highly skilled navigation across vast ocean distances.

Nowadays, islanders (and others) move for better education, jobs, health care, and services, among many other reasons. Sometimes they return home or regularly move back and forth. Sometimes, they do not return, enjoying the new life and perhaps continually sending back remittances to help those left behind.

Irrespective of voluntary emigration choices, environmental change forces migration as well, sometimes emptying an entire island. Islanders have been upended by volcanic eruptions from Papua New Guinea to Iceland and by major storms from Niue in the Pacific to Barbuda in the Caribbean.

Separating out climate change impacts is not easy. Climate change, by definition, involves changes to weather statistics over the decades. A single storm or drought might be exacerbated by climate change, such as warmer oceans intensifying a hurricane, but no storm or drought (or related disaster) is caused by climate change only. After all, excess water and water shortfalls have always been part of human existence. Any disaster is much more about our mismanagement of or lack of choices regarding these situations than about the environmental change.

We do know of ongoing climate change impacts with the potential to destroy island settlements, forcing islander migration. Sea level is rising and, by 2100, could reach levels not seen for about 4,000 years. Combined with increased storm intensity and wave power, saltwater contaminating freshwater, agricultural land, and homes could undermine some island living.

As the oceans absorb carbon dioxide from the air, the water's acidity increases. With higher acidity and higher water temperatures, coastal ecosystems could swiftly change. If coral reefs or mangroves die, they leave the shoreline exposed to the sea's full fury. The erosion could be rapid and devastating.

At the moment, where sea-level rise from climate change is measurable locally, some coastlines are eroding, some are accreting, and some are not changing. Island disappearance is a long way from being certain. Given the time available before potentially devastating impacts, if livelihood and lifestyle changes are made, then islanders might be able to remain. Although if the Antarctic or Greenland ice sheets collapse, leading to sea-level rise higher than most houses, we will see large numbers of people moving from the coasts, probably starting early in the next century.

Another uncertain factor is heat waves. Heat-humidity combinations exacerbated by climate change are projected to threaten the livability of many places from Manama to Melbourne. The knock-on effects for food production and water availability could add to the heat- and humidity-related forced migration from large swathes of land. Projections with high enough resolution for low-lying islands are not yet available, leaving a gap in our knowledge.

All this evidence and the uncertainties have not stopped claims that specific communities in Fiji, Papua New Guinea, and Vanuatu are moving because of climate change. In these cases, close examination undermined significant attribution to climate change. The reasons for moving included tectonic subsidence and local influences on coastal erosion, with sea-level rise sometimes one consideration.

Bangladesh provides parallels. Bangladeshis have long migrated for many reasons and have always experienced weather and non-weather hazards, including storms, floods, droughts, earthquakes, and tsunamis. Cyclone-related devastation has, sadly, been a story throughout the country's history and simply means a lack of preparedness for the weather, not that the climate or climate change is causing problems. Yet Bangladesh has become a world-renowned example of succeeding in saving lives and livelihoods during storms, again indicating what can and should be achieved regarding weather irrespective of climate or climate change.

Alaska appears to be one exception to the rule that people are not climate change migrants now. Over a dozen coastal villages, some of them on islands, are suffering severe erosion as higher temperatures mean less sea ice, which increases the sea's attack on the shore. They have been looking at moving inland solely because of climate change.

The present lack of climate (change) refugees or migrants does not fix the future. As sea-level rise accelerates over the coming decades, combined with ocean acidification and more powerful storms (even if storm frequency decreases due to climate change, as is expected in many places), lack of resources to start creating a better future immediately could force many islanders, and others, to leave their homes eventually. The problem is being unable to plan and prepare today while plenty of time remains.

We know that human-caused climate change is one input into migration among many complex and diverse factors. So far, climate change almost never dominates or causes people's decisions to move. Instead, forced narratives of climate change displacement distract from a failure to support islanders (and others) in addressing current problems, which would strengthen their abilities to deal with any future. This includes making their own migration choices under any climate change scenario.

References

Kelman, I. and R. Stojanov. 2020. "Islander migrations and the oceans: From hopes to fears?" Island Studies Journal, just published, https://doi.org/10.24043/isj.120

Kelman, I. 2020. "Does climate change cause migration?" Chapter 8 in E. Fiddian-Qasmiyeh (ed.), Refuge in a Moving World: Interdisciplinary Conversations, UCL Press, London, U.K.

Kelman, I. 2019. "Imaginary Numbers of Climate Change Migrants?" Social Sciences, vol. 8, no. 5, article 131, https://doi.org/10.3390/socsci8050131

Kelman, I. 2015. "Difficult decisions: Migration from Small Island Developing States under climate change". Earth's Future, vol. 3, no. 4, pp. 133-142, https://doi.org/10.1002/2014EF000278

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