Searching for the climate refugees

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There were supposed to be 50 million climate refugees by the end of last year, so where are they? New Scientist investigates

WHATEVER happened to the climate refugees? Six years ago, several UN bodies endorsed the statement that by the end of 2010, there would be 50 million of them around the planet, fleeing rising sea levels, droughts and other climate catastrophes. Was it all a myth, as climate sceptics suggested last week? Or are the refugees out there, but escaping our attention because they never make it onto CNN?

A New Scientist investigation reveals how international agencies failed to make even the most cursory calculations to support this headline figure. We found that while there are undoubtedly millions of people – overwhelmingly in poor nations – who have had to abandon their homes due to factors linked to climate, no one has counted them. As a result, the only quantitative statement that seems solid is that several hundred people have fled their homes on low-lying islands and along Arctic shores.

Only one person has ever tried to count environmental refugees: British environmental academic Norman Myers. In 1995, he claimed in a report funded by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), the UK and US governments and others that the planet had at least 25 million of them, most classifiable as victims of climate. Myers predicted the number would double to 50 million by 2010 – the headline figure cited by UN agencies – and reach 200 million by mid-century.

Since then, his numbers have turned up in reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the UK’s Stern review of the economics of climate change, and statements from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the United Nations University’s Institute for Environment and Human Security and, until last week, on the UNEP website.

Myers said his numbers were a “first cut assessment” but no one has attempted to refine them. The problem is, while millions of people are displaced worldwide, it is difficult to get a firm handle on numbers and determine the root cause of their migration. Climate is frequently a contributor, though. A 2009 study for the European Union, for example, found that climate was a factor in significant migration in Mongolia – where it was destroying pastures – and in north Africa and the Sahel.

Most of those interviewed for the report, Environmental Change and Forced Migration Scenarios, said they moved for economic reasons, but the researchers found that the “root causes” of their economic hardship were climatic. They also noted that migration was a routine way of coping with floods and droughts in the Sahel, Bangladesh and elsewhere.

Ecuadorians, they found, had left for Europe in large numbers after El Niño floods. And the EU study agreed with Myers that Mexico had been the source of as many as 1 million environmental refugees a year during the 1990s. Increased hurricanes and floods had accelerated decisions to migrate, they found, though the root cause lay in Mexico’s economic crisis.

The EU study also found large-scale government-enforced relocation programmes in Vietnam and Mozambique. These have moved hundreds of thousands of people to cope with environmental threats such as worsening floods and storms, which may be connected to climate change. Overall, it concluded that the magnitude and frequency of environmental hazards were increasing and would continue to do so due to climate change, boosting pressures to migrate.

It did not, however, provide a new global figure. Part of the problem is the difficulty in linking single events to climate change. That leaves sea-level rise as the only migration trigger unambiguously linked to climate change.

Oli Brown of UNEP reviewed four case studies for the International Organization for Migration in 2008. About 1000 people were forced off Carteret Island near Papua New Guinea in 2005, initially blamed on rising sea levels. But Brown found the islanders had sealed their own fate by dynamiting the coral reef that protected their atoll from erosion. He also found that the 10,000 people evacuated from a sand bar in the Hooghly delta in India were actually victims of shifting river currents, mangrove destruction and local subsidence.

More plausible candidates for the title of climate refugee, he said, were the 100 residents of a coral atoll in Vanuatu, and the 500 on an island in the Bering Strait whose coastal village was raked by waves intensified by disappearing sea ice. In both cases, the refugees fled inland. For sceptics, however, these few hundred compare badly with Myers’s 50 million.

The largest single contributor to Myers’s millions are the droughts that parched the Sahel and the Horn of Africa during the 1970s and 80s, leaving 9 million people permanently uprooted. In a study published last year, Gunvor Jónsson of the University of Oxford’s International Migration Institute reviewed 13 studies of migration in the Sahel region. She found that even extreme environmental stress did not necessarily lead to migration “because migration – particularly long-distance and international migration – requires resources, and during drought resources are scarce”.

Some of the Sahelian studies even found that migration decreased during severe drought years; when people did move the migration was local and part of the usual strategy to cope with variable weather. “While the climate science strongly suggests that climate conditions will fundamentally change in many African countries, it is not clear how this will affect human mobility,” Jónsson concluded. “The simplistic and alarmist views of several millions of displaced people moving across borders are based on very little evidence.” The study offers no reassessment of Myers’s millions.

Myers also predicted large-scale climate migrations in China and India. There were, he argued, around 6 million environmental refugees in China, many from the expanding Gobi desert. But the EU report shows that migration in China and India is dominated by development projects such as China’s Three Gorges, which displaced 2 million people.

For all this, dismissing Myers’s numbers on these grounds would be too simple, says Brown. There are almost certainly millions of people around the world who have been forced to move, in part to escape worsening climate and rising tides. In his 2008 study he wrote that “predictions of 200 million people displaced by climate change might well be exceeded”.

Just because we haven’t counted them or cannot attribute migrants’ moves wholly to climate change does not mean they are not there, Brown says. Rather, ignorance has proved rather convenient for governments keen to avoid their responsibilities. “There has been a collective, and rather successful, attempt to ignore the scale of the problem,” he says.

Myers told New Scientist: “It may be very difficult to demonstrate that there are 50 million climate refugees, but it is even harder to demonstrate that there are not.” He sees no reason to change his estimate.

“To Myers’s credit he put his head above the parapet,” says Brown. “A number, any number, can help crystallise attention around an issue.” The shame, he suggests, rests not with Myers but with those who have failed to follow up his work on a topic of such importance.

Searching for the climate refugees

27 April 2011 by Fred Pearce

© New Scientist

Magazine issue 2810

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