Climate refugees

What happens when rising ocean levels mean nations literally disappear
The Asahi Shimbun Premium / Getty Images

When Ioane Teitiota asked New Zealand last year to recognize him as a climate refugee, he put the first human face on what many alarmed migration experts believe will be a flood of people displaced by climate change in the 21st century. Upwards of 200 million by 2050 is the most commonly cited (and hotly disputed) figure, although Wilfrid Laurier University geographer Robert McLeman, the author of the forthcoming Climate and Human Migration—and who strongly doubts both figures—has seen estimates as high as a billion. “But people are already on the move, in the same way they’ve always responded to deteriorating environments,” McLeman notes. “New Orleans has still not regained the population it had before hurricane Katrina in 2005, and not everyone will stay to rebuild their lives in the Philippines after typhoon Haiyan.” And the pace of movement, like the power of the storms themselves, is accelerating.

Teitiota is from the Pacific Ocean nation of Kiribati—32 atolls and one island dispersed over 3.5 million sq. km at the equator—that has lately become, in part because of his refugee claim, ground zero of climate change. Kiribati has had some grim experiences before, including American and British hydrogen-bomb testing on remote atolls in the 1950s. But, if the more dire of climate-change predictions come true, the existential crisis still lies ahead: Kiribati, where humans have lived for more than 3,000 years and which 110,000 people currently call home, may be underwater by the end of the century, as rising temperatures and melting ice caps cause sea levels to rise.

It’s by no means certain that the ultimate disaster will fall; Pacific plate tectonics are complex, McLeman points out and, in 2010, a report indicated that Kiribati’s three main urbanized islands had actually grown larger over the last 60 years. But the Kiribatis, who don’t require a permanent deluge to be environmentally stressed—salinization of their fresh water and arable land by storm surges is bad enough—are planning for the worst. In 2008, the country’s president, Anote Tong, began urging his people to leave, calling for a mass “migration with dignity.”

That’s the best way forward, says McLeman, who admires the Kiribatis’ rare willingness to face the issue, if the increase in temperatures can’t be stemmed or—more plausibly—the effects of the rise can’t be ameliorated. It may, in fact, be the only way forward. Teitiota’s claim was rejected in November because he does not fit the definition of a refugee under international law: a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. The court called Teitiota’s argument that he was “passively persecuted” by climate change his government was powerless to combat, “novel and optimistic [but] unconvincing.”

If worst does comes to worst, in the case of Kiribati and other low-lying island nations, McLeman says, “We’re talking about hundreds of thousands, not millions, of people. Canada alone takes in 300,000 newcomers a year. The islanders would have to have priority—they won’t have options—but this would be a disaster the world could cope with.”

The big numbers and the big dangers lie not in scattered islands but in densely populated river deltas. “There are 20 million people in Shanghai living a metre above sea level,” says McLeman, “with much of their infrastructure actually at sea level,” acutely vulnerable to encroaching seawater. If there are to be large-scale forced migrations in coming decades, they will be from the coastal cites.

McLeman doesn’t—yet—feel an urge to push the panic button. Historically, more than one thing goes wrong before mass environmental migration begins. “Even in the Dust Bowl 1930s, when people poured out of the Prairies in Canada and the U.S., there was [both] drought and economic collapse. Only one, and the numbers would have been smaller.” And he’s still hopeful the world as a whole will do something, if not about the root causes of climate change, at least in adaptive measures to help keep people in place. If we don’t, the wildest predictions are back on the table: To whatever number of climate refugees can reasonably be predicted now, “add a zero to the end for every decade we ignore the problem.”