Climate change could force billions to migrate

Many of the climatic events occurring in nations around the world are the direct result of the 1.1-degree global temperature rise that Earth has already experienced. We will soon see how much worse it will be with a two-degree increase.

Climatologists predict that some areas, such as south-west Asia and the well-populated regions of the Persian Gulf and Yemen, will be so hot with a two-degree temperature increase that they will be uninhabitable without permanent air conditioning. Establishing systems to provide that luxury and operating them for entire cities or small nations would be impossible, even for the oil-rich states.

Mass migrations north and south to cooler regions seem certain, although warming beyond two degrees could turn the fertile lands around the Mediterranean into desert and cause extensive drying across the European continent, with the resultant mass migration of people.

“How do we deal with the prospect of increased climate migration?” asks Professor Jane McAdam, director of the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. “The scale of the challenge is shown by one simple fact: on average, one person is displaced each second by a disaster-related hazard. In global terms, that’s about 26 million people a year.

“Most move within their own countries, but some are forced across international borders. As climate change continues, more frequent and extreme weather events are expected to put more people in harm’s way.”

The Platform on Disaster Displacement, led by the governments of Germany and Bangladesh, aims to protect and help people displaced by disasters and climate change. McAdam describes this as one of the biggest humanitarian challenges of the 21st century.

“Governments need to develop more humane temporary arrangements to assist people displaced after a disaster. They also need to ensure that the needs of those displaced within their own countries are taken care of and their rights respected.

“Assisting those affected to migrate away from at-risk areas could open up opportunities ‘for new livelihoods, skills, knowledge and remittances’, at the same time as relieving the pressure on those who remain and available resources,” McAdam says.

One fearful disaster that no government anywhere is prepared for, however, is a melting of the Arctic ice cap, followed by collapses of the Greenland and Antarctica ice sheets. These catastrophic events would generate sea level rises not seen for tens of thousands of years and, inevitably, the low-lying Pacific islands would be the first to sink beneath the waves.

Inundation of large areas of Asia would force billions more people to head for higher ground or for safer countries. In these circumstances, nations in the south would face a refugee crisis unprecedented in human history, and Australia would most likely be the first port of call.

Yet almost no government has done anything to prepare for such an emergency, any more than they have done to lessen any of the other impacts of climate change.

Even a rise of a metre or more by 2100 would be “murderously high”, especially in developing countries where 600 million people live within 10 metres of the sea, says Australian National University’s Professor Eelco Rohling. He notes that a sea-level rise of two metres would displace almost 2.5% of the total global population. And that means nearly 2 billion people would be forced out of their homes and off their land by the turn of the next century.

The more immediate impacts of such a marked sea-level rise, however, would occur in 136 of the world’s largest port cities where the number of people exposed to flooding will more than triple by 2070 because of population growth and urbanisation.

Representatives from 197 countries agreed at the Paris climate conference in December 2015 to keep any further temperature rise on Earth to less than two degrees, while also aiming to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees. This was an acknowledgement the lower figure could significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change.

But a meeting of 34 representatives from countries vulnerable to the effects of climate change called for much stronger action. In their communiqué, the nations said the maximum increase in warming should be “below if not well below 1.5 degrees, with a peaking of global emissions achieved by 2020 at the latest, and the achievement of net carbon neutrality by the 2050s”.

A subsequent meeting in November 2016 in Marrakesh, Morocco, resulted in another communiqué also proposing much faster responses to climate change threats.

Whatever the ultimate outcome for all life on Earth, the Paris decision represented a stunning achievement for the scientists who had been warning national governments for years of the increasing dangers of climate change. Many of those scientists, however, are now convinced that even a 1.5-degree rise will cause massive and possibly insurmountable worldwide problems.

With a climate change denier now in charge of the most powerful nation in the world, the United States’ position will undoubtedly affect the attitudes of many other countries so that limiting temperature rises on Earth to two degrees seems impossible. Yet before Donald Trump won the presidential election, the US had been actively working to reduce the effects of climate change.

With the nation’s size and influence in world affairs, other countries were beginning to follow, while it was also the US’s strong leadership that brought China to the Paris conference, which in turn led to the declaration of trying to limit further temperature rises to 1.5 degrees.

Gone is the opportunity for the US to act “as a catalyst to spark a virtuous, self-reinforcing cycle of escalating ambition among the other nations” to reduce climate change, as Washington observer David Roberts puts it. The pre-Trump prospect of the world unifying to take bold and dramatic action on climate change, exceeding what was pledged in Paris to save Earth, now seems unachievable.

Will nations start to act?

Because Earth has already warmed by 1.1 degrees, scientists agree it now has the momentum to reach 1.5 degrees far earlier than expected, certainly sooner than 2030.

Even with a goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees, which climatologists believe would require all emissions stopping soon, there will be an overshoot: the heating momentum could take warming to at least two and perhaps three degrees above pre-industrial levels before the average global temperature could be brought back down.

What, then, of the future? Some scientists believe a 1.5-degree increase is now unavoidable while others say that immediate action could limit temperature rises above 1.5 degrees. But this would require greater efforts than anything ever considered so far – including a 25% cut in global carbon dioxide emissions from present-day levels by 2030, a reduction that many rate as impossible.

Such pessimism, though, hasn’t stopped scientists from continuing to investigate methods of reducing the effects of greenhouse gases or proposing ways to counter the acidification of the seas. Plans to tackle warming include eliminating the use of fossil fuels by switching to alternative systems of generating power; imposing taxes on fossil fuel use; forcing miners to charge more for their products; even extracting massive quantities of carbon dioxide and methane from the atmosphere.

The issue of acid seas, others say, could be solved using the same technique that humans adopt to overcome acid stomachs: add a neutralising compound, such as quicklime or calcium oxide, that would also help molluscs and other creatures reliant on calcium carbonate to make their bones or shells.

That task alone, however, would require billions of tonnes of limestone and other calcium carbonate minerals to be ground up and spread across the seas of the world. To accomplish such an enormous project would consume vast quantities of energy and, unless the energy were produced using nuclear reactors, even more carbon dioxide and methane would be released.

During the climate summit in Marrakesh in November 2016, 47 of the poorest and most climatically vulnerable countries pledged to shift to 100% renewable energy as soon as possible. Apart from these, another four nations presented their long-term strategies to bring greenhouse gas emissions down to low levels by 2050: Canada, Mexico, Germany and the United States (under former president Barack Obama).

Germany plans to cut emissions by up to 95% below 1990 levels while setting targets for all its major businesses and industries, with specific milestones for each. By the end of 2016, more than 20 countries, including China and India, had started to formulate their plans, as well as many states, cities and businesses. What effect the election of President Trump will have on the attitudes of other nations has yet to be seen.

In any case, pessimists within the scientific community, and they are many, believe it is already too late and that the prospect of saving the Earth and its people has now gone.

This is an edited extract from Too Late – How we lost the battle against climate change by Geoff Maslen (Hardie Grant, July 2017), a founding editor of University World News, published this week. A second book by Geoff Maslen, An Uncertain Future – Australian birdlife in danger (Hardie Grant 2017), is also out this week.