Casualties of Climate Change

As we watch the devastation of the Queensland flooding it’s timely to be reminded of climate change impacts being experienced and anticipated in other parts of the world.  In the latest issue of The Scientific American three researchers have written an article — Casualties of Climate Change — in which they suggest that climate-forced migration and displacement may be the defining humanitarian challenge in coming decades. They begin with some general observations on the threat of rising sea level not only to small island nations, but also to a country like India where a metre of sea level rise will displace 40 million people. South Asia is in addition particularly threatened by the likelihood of more intense rainfall – more monsoon rain combined with a decrease in frequency is what some models are suggesting. Shifts in seasonality of river flows as glaciers shrink is also likely to impact on the agricultural livelihoods of several hundred million rural Asians, as well as the food supplies of an equal number of Asian urbanites.


There’s a lot to understand yet, but the increase in climate-related catastrophes is already a fact.

“The frequency of natural disasters has increased by 42 percent since the 1980s, and the percentage of those that are climate-related has risen from 50 to 82 percent. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre estimates that in 2008, climate-related calamities drove 20 million people from their homes—more than four times the number displaced by violent conflict.”

The article then selects and comments on three regions of the world where there are initial signs of population movements impelled by climate change: Mozambique, the Mekong Delta, and Mexico and Central America. The writers look briefly at the factors which are at work in each region to cause relocation of population, treating them as case studies which might spur further analyses of regions where mass migrations are likely to occur.

In 2000, 2001 and 2007 disastrous floods in the Zambezi and Limpopo river basins in Mozambique displaced hundreds of thousands of people. In the past people have moved periodically out of the floodplains to avoid floods, but in this last decade as the severity and frequency of flooding has increased the government has encouraged permanent resettlement and has initiated a work-for-assistance programme to help the resettlement. The resettlement schemes remain heavily dependent on governmental and international aid however because of the lack of infrastructure and frequent crop failure in the areas to which people have been moved.

Mozambique is threatened by a double whammy, flood in the north and drought in the south, as the climate turns ever more unforgiving. They can be simultaneous, as in 2007 when the south was in drought even as the Zambezi further north was overflowing its banks. Models suggest that rainfall levels may increase in the north while decreasing in the south. Much depends on the spacing and intensity of the rainfall: further intensification will mean a continuation of the catastrophic flooding experienced throughout the past decade. Without continuing humanitarian assistance it appears likely that resettled people will need to migrate longer distances or across borders – the capital city Maputo or the neighbouring South Africa are the most likely destinations for such population movement.

The Vietnamese portion of the Mekong Delta is home to 18 million people, or 22 percent of Vietnam’s population.

“It accounts for 40 percent of Vietnam’s cultivated land surface and more than a quarter of the country’s GDP. Its residents grow more than half of Vietnam’s rice, produce 60 percent of its fish and shrimp haul and harvest 80 percent of its fruit crop.”

All that is under threat. A one metre sea level rise this century would displace 7 million people in the Delta, a two metre rise 14 million, or 50% of the Delta’s population.  Flood cycles are part of life in the area, and ‘nice floods’ range between half a metre and three metres. In recent decades however both the frequency and magnitude of floods exceeding the four-metre mark have increased. This has already led to migration by some to cities. The government is furthering a programme to adapt farming methods to the changes, and to relocate some of the poor landless to new residential clusters, but clearly there is a prospect of large population displacement ahead.

In Mexico and Central America it’s drought and storms which are driving population relocation. The area is home to 10 million farmers who struggle to meet their basic needs by growing traditional staples. They need moderate rainfall, not droughts and tropical storms which are increasing and driving people into the cities or to El Norte (“The North”). The great majority of migrants to the US come from these poor rural areas.  Many environmental and social factors contribute to the problems farmers are encountering, but climatic factors are adding to the distress. One farmer:

“My grandfather, father and I have worked on these lands. But times have changed…. The rain is coming later now, so that we produce less. The only solution is to go away [to the U.S.], at least for a while.”

The article wonders about allowing seasonal migration to the US and Canada on temporary work visas when climate disasters such as drought or flooding occur, while for the longer term regional planners work out water-saving irrigation technologies and alternative livelihoods.

These three regions are indicators of what migratory pressures may lie ahead as the effects of climate change begin to bite. Increases in flooding, drought and sea level rise will put pressure on many populations. The authors of the article want to urge the international community to prepare for the humanitarian challenge. Their recommendations in conclusion are sensible and civilised.

  • Reduce greenhouse gas emissions to safe levels.
  • Invest in disaster risk management, which has been shown to decrease the likelihood of large-scale migration.
  • Recognise that some migration will be inevitable and develop national and international adaptation strategies.
  • Establish binding commitments to ensure adaptation funding reaches the people who need it most.
  • Strengthen international institutions to protect the rights of those displaced by climate change.

14 thoughts on “Casualties of Climate Change”

  1. The effects of climate change are very slow moving and I always believed that it would be sufficiently far away as to not effect me personally. Now I am not so sure. Mass movement of people caused by desperate and starving people can be almost unstoppable as we saw from the Vietnamese boat people.
    With a Maritime climate we may always be able to farm but if the rains fail or wash away crops in other countries then desperate people may look at our green country and see a safe have for their families.

  2. “desperate people may look at our green country and see a safe have for their families.” ….Is that an invite Bob? ……I’ll bring my kids and in-laws over to stay as soon as you post your home address.
    Surely you will need to prepare for us and all the other visitors so how about building a few more coal or new nuclear power plants and some new accommodation (up high in the hills please) – I’d like a new school for the kids and grandchildren and a well equipped hospital for the old man too. Better get onto it now so you guys are prepared for the end of the world. (just as a sidebar…Will you or Gareth be king in this ‘safe’ green haven?)
    If you believe in AGW and that CO2 is causing sea level to rise then you had better be prepared – China, India and most of the world’s population are hardly likely to stop driving cars, stop burning oil and turn their lights out just because your stupid alarmist friends tell them too.
    Maybe you should watch this and loosen up:

    1. Lank, I have previously asked you to comment on the credibility of Ken Ring, Vince Gray and EG Beck. It should be easy for an experienced PhD like you. How about it?

      All goes to prove my earlier thesis that denialists, even when anonymous, don’t dare to criticise each other.

  3. Lank may prefer this form of adaptation that’s been growing in popularity in India. (Not a peep on this in the western media, AFAICT. Also, note that weather/climate disruptionn isn’t the only factor involved.)

  4. “As we watch the devastation of the Queensland flooding it’s timely to…”
    not miss this this opportunity to imply, on zero evidence, that this decades-return flood (which will of course happen again), is somehow evidence of the collapsing catastrophic human-induced climate change hypothesis.

    1. Going to make any comment on your ‘not as big as ’74’ remark on the ‘teardrops’ post, Steve?

      It will be interesting to see if you are actually capable of admitting that you made a logical error – the flood markers cannot be the sole indicator for a comparison of the scale of the flood (you might want to review Tom Curtis’ comment here.)

      All this was immediately pointed-out to you, to which you could only respond with ‘absolutely not unprecedented’. Your working for this assertion?

      And perhaps you’d like to cut and paste some precedents for what happened at Toowoomba and in the Lockyer Valley from somewhere?

      (Plus some advanced warning – you’ll probably need to gin up on western Victoria too! )

      And since you expressed doubts that these events were increasing in frequency and scale you may also want to read this (well, you won’t, actually) More of Australia getting hot and wet extremes.

      Of course the paper referred to is written by self-described ‘Climate Scientists’ so it cannot possibly hope to penetrate the field of your Confirmation Bias, which is mighty indeed. And I’m sure some corporate hack in an Oil-funded think tank is duct-taping together a ‘refutation’ as we ‘speak’! Isn’t that comforting?

      The last year has not gone well at all for your side of the argument, Steve, and even you must have the niggling little worm of dissonance eating away somewhere…

        1. I also note that while several hours later he’s batting around ‘not unprecedented’ elsewhere on the blog (will this be the catchphrase to follow ‘catastrophe cancelled’? who cares?) he’s MIA on the issues raised above.

            1. …actually, I really tend to think of them as ‘corporate …’ something that sounds like it starts with ‘h’ but actually begins with ‘w’ 😉

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