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Last year was the worst year on record for refugees. The number of people fleeing war and persecution jumped to nearly 60 million, the highest figure since the United Nations’ refugee agency began keeping records 50 years ago, and that doesn’t even include people driven from their homes by poverty, gang violence or natural disasters.

Photo credit: Shutterstock
“Climate change is going to compound the cocktail that’s driving war and displacement.” Photo credit: Shutterstock

Smugglers are preying on refugees, social services in poor Middle Eastern and African countries have been stretched to the limit, and Europe and Australia are turning back exiles at their borders. António Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, acknowledged that relief agencies are overwhelmed. “We don’t have the capacity and we don’t have the resources to support all the victims of conflict around the world to provide them with the very minimal level of protection and assistance,” he told reporters at a mid-June press conference.

By all accounts, it’s a mess. But it’s likely only a harbinger of things to come if industrialized nations don’t dramatically reduce carbon emissions. Drought and desertification already ruin thousands of square miles of productive land annually in China and a number of African countries, while rising sea levels triggered by warmer global temperatures could eventually force tens if not hundreds of millions of people from their coastal homes.

“One of the drivers of displacement and potential conflict over the next 10 to 20 years will be climate [change]-resource scarcity,” David Miliband, president of the International Rescue Committee and a former UK foreign minister, said recently. “Climate change is going to compound the cocktail that’s driving war and displacement.”

Global Sea Levels Are Rising Faster

The global average sea level has gone up approximately 8 inches since 1880, but scientists expect it to rise at a much faster rate over the next century. Projections of sea level rise by 2100 range from 1 and a half feet to 6 and a half feet, depending on how quickly land-based glaciers melt and how quickly industrialized countries rein in carbon emissions.

Based on that range, a 2011 study in the British Royal Society’s scientific journal estimated that 72 million to 187 million people would be displaced by 2100 if no action were taken to upgrade coastal defenses. The study projects that small islands and coastal communities in Africa and parts of Asia, which are less likely to have the resources to install costly barriers, are the places most likely to be abandoned.

A 2007 study in Environment and Urbanization, meanwhile, used satellite data to identify coastal areas less than 30 feet above sea level. The study authors then analyzed census figures from 224 countries. Their finding? Some 634 million people inhabit these low-lying areas. That’s 10 percent of the world’s population crammed into only 2 percent of the world’s land mass. Two-thirds of the world’s largest cities—those with more than 5 million residents—are at least partially located there.

The study also found the 10 countries with the largest share of their populations in low-elevation coastal zones are Bangladesh, China, Egypt, Gambia, India, Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines, Thailand and the United States. Climate exile is already a reality in Bangladesh, where millions of people have emigrated northward to escape chronic flooding in the Bay of Bengal’s low-lying river deltas. Scientists predict the country will lose 17 percent of its land to rising sea levels by 2050, potentially displacing as many as 20 million people.

Climate exile is also front and center for a number of small island nations, including the Carteret Islands in the South Pacific and the Maldives in the Indian Ocean. The Carteret Islands, a part of Papua New Guinea, began evacuating back in 2009. The Maldives government, meanwhile, is still trying to find a suitable place to move its 380,000 residents before rising sea levels overwhelm its 26 atolls.

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