Displacement, Human Mobility, and Climate Change

Between 2008 and 2016, 25.3 million people have been displaced from their homes due to extreme weather events – equivalent to one person per second. The tally does not include slow-moving human migration attributed to long term drought or sea level rise, but solely weather events such as tornadoes, cyclones, hurricanes, raging wildfires, and stalled weather patterns, which often result in extended rains or severe heat waves. All of these damage crops, impacting long-term food security.

The migration of such a large number of people each year initiated the creation a UN task force in 2015 to review how to best address this growing problem. For people residing in many island states, their traditional way of life is taken from them because of severe weather rather than sea level rise. Fiji, as the COP23 presidency country, is providing a spotlight on the many islands worldwide that contributed little to climate change but are suffering the consequences; they will potentially lose their homeland within fifty years. Some of the most threatened islands are the Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Tuvalu, Tonga, Micronesia, Cook Islands, Antigua, Nevis, and the Maldives.

Kiribati Islands circled in red. (Wikimedia Commons)

Former three-term Kiribati President, Mr. Anote Tong, spoke today about his decades-long effort to raise global awareness of the threat posed by climate change. Here are my takeaways from his sobering and moving talk. He brought tears to my eyes as he described what has occurred during his lifetime:

  1. Kiribati has climate deniers just like many other countries.
  2. They deny climate change because they are taking a long view of the problem: only looking at climate change in terms of their own lifetime.
  3. No one wishes to be told his or her home will no longer exist, so denying is a simple solution.
  4. Cyclones will destroy Kiribati long before a rising ocean fully submerges the archipelago, located on the equator between Australia and Papua New Guinea.
  5. Weather patterns are upsetting the balance of the Pacific Islands.
  6. In March 2015, cyclone Pam moved south – a weather pattern that had never occurred – and destroyed most of the infrastructure on Vanuatu, a Kiribati island.
Tarawa Atoll – a part of the Kiribati Islands. (Wikimedia Commons)

President Tong no longer hesitates in telling his people that the islands, which they have inhabited for generations, will not be habitable by the end of this century. He is not, however, deterred by this grim prediction. He continues to search for creative solutions in addressing the “people issues” brought on by climate change, but what he believes most viable is a concept he has titled:

“Migration with Dignity”

The people know displacement is coming to Kiribati. Even if all emissions were brought to zero tomorrow, climate effects will be seen for decades to come. The islanders have time to migrate before the land is submerged, so they are not waiting; they are preparing youth to relocate. For example, nurses are in short supply in rural Australia, so Kiribati is encouraging and providing nursing education. Japan has an aging population, so fluency in Japanese will assist in filling Japan’s entry-level positions. President Tong is an optimist and hopes that one day, these former Kiribati citizens will be elected to the Australian parliament or become a Japanese executive. He professes the planet will be smaller and more integrated with each decade.

Climate change is testing our ethos. Will countries welcome the lifeboat of islanders or decide to leave them at sea? I hope it will be the former. Fiji is one nation that is accepting Kiribati’s migrants. They have offered citizenship to any Kiribati islander who requests a move to Fiji because of climate change. The UN is also discussing VISA opportunities for climate refugees.

Three COP23 volunteers, with home countries Ghana, Italy, and Cameroon (left to right).

What can we, as individuals, do to assist climate displaced individuals?

  1. Get involved. Share personal stories of losing a home to a tornado, flood, hurricane, or other natural disaster at: www.internal-displacement.org
  2. Follow the dialogue from individual stories submitted above that will be created throughout 2018.Recommendations for action will be provided at COP24 – so
  3. follow along a year from now!

Photo credits

Globe By TUBS, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Tarawa Atoll photo taken by Government of Kiribati employee in the course of their work (Government of Kiribati), via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

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