Climate Refugees

Climate Refugees

Eleven French journalists – writers and photographers of Collectif Argos – visited some of the people who live on the front line of climate change. Their report was first published in France in 2007, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has now published an English version: Climate Refugees. It invites reading. The written narratives are engaging and immediately informative. The related photographic sections are strikingly alive and stir the imagination. But it’s not lightly done -– the journalists spent time staying with the people whose lives they describe and there’s satisfying depth to the stories and the pictures.

Nine places were visited: Alaska and New Orleans in the US, the low-lying halligen on the North Sea coast of Germany, Lake Chad in Africa, the village of Longbaoshan near Beijing in China, Himalayan Nepal, the small town of Mushiganj in the south west corner of Bangladesh, the Maldives in the Indian Ocean and Tuvalu in the Pacific.

Shishmaref is a village of 600 people on the small island of Sarichef off the coast of Alaska in the Arctic Ocean. As their village slowly crumbles into the sea and the whole island moves towards becoming inhabitable by 2050 the issue is not whether they will have to relocate. It’s where they will go. On offer is a move to towns 200 miles away to take advantage of the urban infrastructure. But the Shishmaref Inupiaq are convinced that relocating to a city would be tantamount to “burying their culture, soul, uniqueness and future”. What many would prefer is to recreate the village on a mainland site only 12 miles away. But it would be double the cost – $200 million as against $100 million – and the fear is that the state will not pay the extra.

The village of Longbaoshan, just 38 kilometres north-west of the Beijing suburbs, is not falling into the sea but being slowly buried by advancing sand. Only 700 people now remain. In recent years 200 have already left for the capital.

“My fields are nothing but stones and sand, sand and stones. Where’s the soil? Where’s the rain? The sky is my only hope, the only way we are able to eat. After the big storm in the spring of 2000, my son had to leave. He became a cook at a restaurant in a Beijing suburb. We don’t see him any more.”

The journalists went to the city to track down a couple who made the move, leaving their young son with his grandfather. They found them working very long hours and living in a nine-square-metre single room.

Around the town of Mushiganj in Bangladesh it’s too much water which is driving people away from their homes. Bangladeshis are accustomed to flooding and have learned to use it to their benefit. But global warming has added a scope and duration to floods which are destroying that balance. In the area the journalists visited the salinity of the soil has increased and crops have been replaced by shrimp farms, which bring far fewer jobs than rice paddies. Drinking water has to be fetched in exhausting trips. The nearby mangrove forests of the Sundarbans offer some fishing and other resources but are infested with pirates and are the refuge of the dangerous Bengal tiger. So for many it’s Dhaka for employment and income, albeit in demanding and exhausting work such as rickshaw driving.

The climate change pressures on Bangladesh will only increase and Dhaka will simply be unable to absorb the large-scale rural exodus anticipated. Where will people go? The journalists spoke with a geography professor who rules out neighbouring India and Myanmar as destinations for political and climate change reasons. He looks for cooperation outside southern Asia in preparing for the massive migrations anticipated.

“I think that countries with larger land areas will have to change their immigration policies. If we believe climate change is a global problem. then we must look for global solutions. Trying to solve it at national level is a mistake.”

Another researcher put it this way:

“For a long time now, I’ve been proposing the following solution. Each country must take responsibility for – in other words transport and accommodate – a quota of climate refugees proportional to its past and present greenhouse gas emissions.”

The water problem in Lake Chad is quite a different one. The lake is disappearing and taking life with it. Over the past 40 years it has lost 90% of its area, shrinking from 25,000 to 2500 square kilometres. A UNESCO statement describes the gradual drying up of the lake as the most spectacular example of the effects of climate change in tropical Africa, attributing it to low amounts of rainfall, evapotranspiration from high temperatures and a series of severe droughts. The effects on the surrounding populations are harsh. “God needs to send us a miracle because there’s too much suffering involved in living on the lake.”

When the journalists began their stay in Tuvalu they record that they couldn’t help feeling some irritation at what they saw as the carefree attitude and love of the easy life of the Tuvaluans. However further acquaintance revealed a pragmatic people fully aware of their inevitable fate and wanting to do everything in their power to stay on their land as long as possible, though involved in a global struggle to negotiate their relocation under optimal conditions. The Chief of Staff at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs:

“We asked the governments of Australia and New Zealand to acknowledge the concept of climate refugees.  They refused, saying that, according to international law, refugees can only be people subject to persecution or political, ideological, ethnic or religious pressure – a narrow definition that suits them just fine.”

The journalists, however, wonder whether, based on current scientific knowledge, the existence of climate refugees may give rise to the concept of ‘environmental persecution’ of the most vulnerable populations by the major greenhouse-gas emitters. This could be, they suggest, the beginning of climate justice in which the biggest polluters per inhabitant would not be able to turn away Tuvaluans forced to flee their land.

The Maldives face a similar prospect to the Tuvaluans. The valley residents of Nepal are seriously threatened by growing number of glacial lakes high above them that are becoming engorged with water from receding glaciers and may explode in outburst floods. Many former residents of New Orleans have been relocated in Houston and elsewhere in the US. The sparse population of the halligen in the meantime have a great deal of government money spent on keeping them in their threatened enironment because protecting the halligen means helping protect the mainland.

What is the rest of the world going to do if under the pressures of climate change it becomes apparent that large numbers of people must move from where they now live and work?  The book puts that question squarely in front of us. Some of the migration will be within national borders. That will be demanding enough. But some will have to be beyond those borders. Will the rich nations face up to the responsibility they have incurred?  Will ethical imperatives survive the crunch times ahead?  It would be a hard heart which looked at the photographs in this book and didn’t hope so.

[Buy via Fishpond (NZ),, Book Depository (UK)]

9 thoughts on “Climate Refugees”

  1. "…beginning of climate justice in which the biggest polluters per inhabitant would not be able to turn away Tuvaluans forced to flee their land."

    Apparently not:
    "For years, people have warned that the smallest nations on the planet – island states that barely rise out of the ocean – face being wiped off the map by rising sea levels. Now the first analysis of the data broadly suggests the opposite: most have remained stable over the last 60 years, while some have even grown.
    Paul Kench at the University of Auckland in New Zealand and Arthur Webb at the South Pacific Applied Geoscience Commission in Fiji used historical aerial photos and high-resolution satellite images to study changes in the land surface of 27 Pacific islands over the last 60 years. During that time, local sea levels have risen by 120 millimetres, or 2 millimetres per year on average. "

    Catastrophe cancelled

  2. Steve, the Tuvaluans would be the first to welcome being able to stay in their homeland. But the phenomenon is not quite a straightforward as you might think. This from the director of the weather observatory:
    "In 20 years, the temperature has risen by 0.4 degrees. That's a huge increase! It leads to periods of drought as well as warming of the ocean's surface, which contributes to the formation of devastating cyclones and could eventually result in the destruction of the coral. But the most serious threat today is a recurrence of abnormally high tides – with disturbing consequences. The first we've seen is the appearance of large puddles of salt water, which are pushed by ebb tides across the coral substratum to the island's lowest points. In other places, the water still doesn't rise to the surface but it sterilizes the soil underground and prevents cultivation of the island's two major root crops, taro and pulaka, which play an important role in our diet."

    Shall we say at best catastrophe postponed?

  3. Continual changes in the hydrology of the dynamic process that is a coral atoll is exactly what you would expect, especially with population pressure (so much for Al Gore's halucinatory island evacuations) forcing residents to move to the lowest, swampiest ground.
    The stark observation stands: the islands ain't shrinking.

  4. One wonders what the denial movement will make of this? Perhaps they're just "ecomomic refugess", trying to cash in on climate change?

    1. Who is this "they" you refer to? Island populations are not declining. However if you are referring to those islanders who have moved to NZ or Aus for the last 1/2 century, yes the reasons they move are economic. I mean does anyone move from Tuvalu to Timaru because of the climate?

  5. @ Steve

    You seem to ignore the other examples (China etc.) and focus on cherry picking a few facts out of context from New Scientists. Let's look at the article in full:

    "Yet warnings about rising sea levels must still be taken seriously. Earlier this year, people living on the low-lying Carteret Islands, part of Papua New Guinea, had to relocate. Kench says anecdotal reports that the islands have been submerged are "incorrect", saying that instead erosion has changed the shape of the islands, forcing people to move."

    It's the overall global trend, not a few isolated events we need to look at. Did you read the article in full, or only those parts that seemed to accord with your viewpoint?

    You can't deny the science and yet use the authority of science at the same time.

  6. Steve in his enthusiasm has also conveniently not mentioned this from the scientists:

    "Webb and Kench warn that while the islands are coping for now, any acceleration in the rate of sea-level rise could overtake the sediment build up. Calculating how fast sea levels will rise over the coming decades is uncertain science, and no one knows how fast the islands can grow."

    1. "any acceleration in the rate of sea-level rise could overtake the sediment build up"
      There is no evidence that this "acceleration in the rate of sea level" does actually occur- like in the real world , as opposed to the screen of computer models.

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