Magazine article Geographical

The Tide Is Turning

Magazine article Geographical

The Tide Is Turning

Article excerpt

Extreme weather, rising sea levels and slowly altering local climates are affecting an increasing number of people around the world, from the Pacific to the Arctic. And even the West is feeling the pinch.

Last autumn, in a New Zealand court room, Loane Teitiota came close--but not close enough--to becoming the world's first legally recognised climate refugee. Teitiota argued that rising sea levels had forced him to leave his home country, Kiribati, citing as evidence the fact that parts of his South Pacific island nation were substantially under water, to the extent that the dead could no longer be buried. The problem is so acute that the Kiribati government has purchased about 2,200 hectares of land from its nearest neighbour, Fiji, in order to guarantee its food security as its own arable land is swamped by rising tides.

The case was rejected by a High Court judge, but Teitiota is one of a host of displaced people seeking such status in courts around the world. The Pacific islands and Australasia are among those on the front line of climate change, and 2012 saw 129,000 people in the region forced from their homes, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) and the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC). This included displacement caused by flood and storm disasters in Papua New Guinea, Fiji and Australia.

Last autumn, several Pacific island presidents called on the UN General Assembly to mitigate the impacts of climate change already felt by their nations. 'Low-lying island nations such as mine are already paying the earliest costs of what is fast becoming a global crisis,' said the president of the Marshall Islands, Christopher Loeak. Meanwhile, Anote Tong, the president of Kiribati, told the UN gathering that 'we want our people to have the option to migrate with dignity should the time come that migration is unavoidable. And all the science is telling us that it is just a matter of time.'

Elsewhere in the Pacific, people are already being forced to move. Papua New Guinea's Carteret Islands are home to 1,000 people. The islands' high point is just 1.7 metres above sea level, and due to coastal erosion and inundation by salt water, most of the small gardens of swamp taro and vegetables upon which families depend for food are no longer fertile. After several unsuccessful attempts to move the islanders, authorities have identified a plantation on Bougainville as a future resettlement site.


Beyond the Pacific, the number of people on the move around the globe--either because of extreme weather, rising sea levels or a slowly altering local climate--is staggering. According to the IDMC's Global Estimates 2012 report, 32.4 million people were forced to abandon their homes in the face of floods, storms and earthquakes. Such disasters, the report notes, have doubled from about 200 a year to more than 400 over the past two decades, although it can't say what proportion could be attributed directly and solely--to climate change.

'We know that climate change is happening, we can say that confidently,' says Nina M Birkeland, a senior adviser on disasters and climate change at the NRC. 'What we can't prove is that people in a given country are being displaced or migrating because of a given sudden event, but human migration and climate change are coming together; climate change is a strong driver.'

The report found that in 2011, 14.9 million people were displaced within their own borders throughout the world due to natural disasters, mostly related to weather events such as floods and storms. Some 89 per cent of the displacement occurred in Asia. The report concluded that the impacts of climate change, such as changing rainfall patterns and increases in temperature, combined with rapid population growth, suggest that more and more people are likely to be affected by displacement.

'A major issue is the degree of vulnerability of those who rely on fisheries and agriculture for their livelihoods as the environment in which they're working becomes more marginal and compromised," says the IDMC's Justin Ginnetti. …

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