16 May 2016

As Predicted: A Rising Tide of Migration

(“As the Marshall Islands and several other small island states around the world struggle with saltwater intrusion into their fields and a dwindling fresh water supply, a future abroad is beginning to creep into the minds of local residents,” Eric Holthaus writes for Columbia Law School Magazine. Photo: UNDP)

By David Funkhouser

“With sea levels on the rise, several island nations are scrambling to stay above water and ensure citizens will have a place to go when the ocean engulfs their homeland. The humanitarian-crisis phase of climate change has officially begun.”

Eric Holthaus, a meteorologist who writes about weather and climate for Slate, opens a new article written for the Columbia Law School Magazine with that dire statement.

But it’s not an unforeseen situation. He notes that in 1990, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change laid out the prospects for environmental change under global warming, if nothing is done to curb the use of fossil fuels. In the panel’s first assessment, the scientists on the panel wrote: “These changes could initiate large migrations of people, leading over a number of years to severe disruptions of settlement patterns and social instability in some areas.”

Here we are in 2016. And not much has improved.

“Not only is it obvious that the UN panel was correct, but it is also indisputable that we have since made things worse,” Holthaus writes. “Four other assessments and more than a quarter-century later, global carbon emissions are still soaring—up more than 60 percent, and in line with what is considered a worst-case scenario.”

Holthaus speaks with several people at the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, who have been investigating the impact of these issues on international law—and the ways international law can be brought to bear.

“I think the countries of the world need to start thinking seriously about how many people they’re going to take in,” says Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center. “The current horrific situation in Europe is a fraction of what’s going to be caused by climate change.”

And, Gerrard notes, “One thing I’ve learned in the work that I’ve done is that a place becomes uninhabitable well before it’s submerged.”

Gerrard and others in the piece discuss the UN’s role in addressing the issue, and how nations can settle issues like what happens to people’s rights when their country disappears underwater. Even trickier: What responsibility developed nations who have been most responsible for climate change, including the United States, should have for helping out. Who will take in the inevitable climate refugees is a hugely sticky question, especially here in this election year.

Holthaus continues: “In total, climate change may displace up to a quarter-billion people by 2050, according to research cited by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. That means, within our lifetimes, climate change could become a human rights emergency that grinds global governance to a halt. How the global community chooses to address this seemingly inevitable problem will help define international relations for the rest of this century.”

(Mr. David Funkhouser is a writer and content manager for the Earth Institutite at Columbia University in New York City. Before joining Columbia, he spent 35 years writing, editing and managing at various newspapers around New England, most recently serving as environmental reporter for The Hartford Courant. He published this article on Slate of Planet on 29 April 2016. Read his blog story and for more information about the original article, please click here.)