Maasi herdsman Moses Mopel Kisosion had never been outside Kenya before. He'd never ridden on a plane. But he flew across parts of two continents to deliver a message to anyone who would listen at the Copenhagen climate conference in December.
Climate change, he believes, is destroying the ability of his people, the Kajiado Maasi, to make a living. “I am a pastoralist, looking after cattles, walking from one place to another looking for grass and pastures,” Kisosion said. “And now, for four years, we have a lack of rain, so our animals have died because there's no water and no grass…. We are wondering how our life will be because we depend on them.”
The Maasi are hardly alone in worrying if they will be able to continue living where they are. From small South Pacific island nations to the Arctic, hundreds of millions of people might have to relocate to survive as a result of climate change. If global warming predictions prove accurate, some researchers believe the world could soon find itself dealing with a tidal wave of “climate refugees.”
A study by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre found that “climate-related disasters — that is, those resulting from hazards that are already being or are likely to be modified by the effects of climate change — were responsible for displacing approximately 20 million people in 2008.”
Norman Myers, a British environmentalist, sees the situation worsening as the effects of climate change grow. In a 2005 study, he concluded that up to 200 million people could become climate refugees. But he recently revised his estimate significantly. “We looked at the best prognosis for the spread of desertification and sea level rise, including the associated tsunamis and hurricanes, and we meshed those figures with the number of people impoverished or inhabiting coastal zones,” says Myers. “We believe we could see half a billion climate refugees in the second half of the century.”
The human displacement is likely to take place over several decades, experts say, and determining who is a climate refugee and who is simply a political or economic refugee could be difficult. International organizations have just begun the discussion about their status and what kind of assistance they might require.
The European Commission is funding a two-year research project, “Environmental Change and Forced Migration Scenarios,” based on case studies in 24 vulnerable countries. An African Union Summit in Kampala, Uganda, also met last October to consider how it would address the growing number of displaced Africans.
Wahu Kaara, a Kenyan political activist, says the need for action is pressing. Kenya has recorded four major droughts in the last decade, significantly higher than the average over the previous century. “Very many people are dislocated and have to move to where they can salvage their lives,” she says. “We have seen people die as they walk from one place to another. It's not a hardship; it's a catastrophe. They not only have lost their animals, they have lost their lives, and the framework of their lives for those who survive.”
While Africa already may be suffering population movement due to climate change, the worst consequences are likely to be felt in Asia, analysts say. Rising sea levels threaten low-lying coastal areas, which constitute only 2 percent of the land surface of the Earth but shelter 10 percent of its population. About 75 percent of the people living in those areas are in Asia.
The Maldives, a nation of low-lying islands in the Indian Ocean that could be submerged if predictions prove accurate, has taken the lead in trying to organize smaller island nations in the global warming debate. President Mohamed Nasheed initially supported the Copenhagen Accord and its 2-degree Celsius target for limiting global warming as a beginning. But before the deal was struck, he declared, “At 2 degrees, my country would not survive.”
A house tumbles into the Chukchi Sea in Shishmaref, Alaska. Like other victims of climate change, residents may have to abandon the tiny community due to unprecedented erosion caused by intense storms. (AP Photo/Diana Haecker)
Rising sea levels threaten every continent, including the Americas. Until recently, Kivalina Island, an eight-mile long barrier island in northern Alaska, had survived the punishing storms that blew in from the ocean because of ice that formed and piled up on the island.
Inupiat hunters from the island's small village began noticing changes in the ice years ago, says the island's tribal administrator, Colleen Swan, but the change has accelerated in recent years. “In early September and October, the ice used to start forming, but now it doesn't form anymore until January and it's not building up,” she says. “When that happened, we lost our barrier from fall sea storms, and our island just started falling apart. We started losing a lot of land beginning in 2004.”
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is building a seawall to protect what's left of Kivalina, but Swan says it is expected to buy only 10 or 15 years. “People in the United States are still debating whether climate change is happening. The U.N. is focusing on the long-term problem of emissions,” Swan says, “but we're in the 11th hour here. The bottom line is we need someplace to go.”
— Reed Karaim