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Probable Cause

3 in a 4 Part Series

We buy vehicle insurance on the probability, not the surety mind you, but the probability, that we will have an accident that we will need help meeting the cost for. The IPCC took 29 thousand observational data series from 75 different studies and found roughly 89% of the series agreed with the projected changes predicted by climate scientists. If there is an 89% probability I am going to have a serious car accident I can do one of three things: take my chances driving uninsured, have the bare minimum of insurance required, or purchase full coverage insurance. The costs of driving uninsured, both the direct and indirect costs, are higher than the cost of my bare minimum premium, should I “get caught” driving without insurance. If I never have an accident, never get stopped and ticketed, then the insurance costs more; but the 89% probability of having an accident far outweigh the 11% chance I won’t. The insurance premiums may be expensive but the insurance will pay for itself should an accident occur. There is the issue of diminishing returns but when the stakes are as high for humanity as worst case scenario climate change makes them, then the issue of diminishing returns becomes relative.

Some of the world’s wealthiest coastal cities are “buying full coverage insurance” by building bulwarks and floodgates to stem the damage from predicted rising sea levels. Rotterdam, Europe’s busiest port, spent $600 million on floodgates. Venice, London and New York are planning similar projects, at a cost of $51 billion, to protect their interests. Yet as a global community we are essentially uninsured; having earmarked only $398 million and some change for climate adaptation in the developing world, where the most severe effects of climate change will be felt.

The correlation between climate change, environmental degradation, over population, and human migration is undeniable. The ability of our ancestors to adapt, with both their brains and their feet, to changing environmental conditions is found in the flowing waves of human migration recorded in the genetic and archeological record. Climate change and environmental degradation directly affect us in the following ways: rising sea levels, the intensity and/or frequency of storms, drought, desertification, and water shortages; the indirect ways we are affected by them are nearly innumerable. All of these singly are sufficient to start migration activity if they are severe enough but when more than one of these is occurring in an area at one time and there are any other social, economic or political pressures, it is a recipe for disaster.

Any discussion of refugees created by climate change or environmental degradation begins with a handicap -we do not have a working definition, that is accepted across the board, of what such a refugee is. The scientific, academic, and political, communities must come to a consensus on what the definition of a person who flees their home due to climate change and/or environmental degradation is. Climate change refugees and environmental refugees are not the same thing, although a climate change refugee is most assuredly an environmental refugee the reverse is not true.

Essam El-Hinnawi ,of the United Nations Environmental Programme , brought the term environmental refugee into the public arena fully when he used it in a 1985 policy paper but it was Norman Myer’s who hammered out the first serious definition.

Myers defined environmental refugees as people who can no longer gain a secure livelihood in their homelands because of drought, soil erosion, desertification, deforestation and other environmental problems, together with the associated problems of population pressures and profound poverty. In a 2007 paper, Biermann and Boas stipulated that climate refugees had to be fleeing one or more of three climate change impacts: 1) sea level rise, 2) extreme weather conditions, and 3) drought and water scarcity. Harvard’s Environmental Law Review ran an article in 2009 which defined climate change refugees, even more narrowly, as people whom climate change forces to relocate across national borders. The authors of this document also believe that we need a new, international legal instrument to deal with the plight of climate refugees guarantying them human rights protections as well as humanitarian aid. They further propose we should seek to prevent the situations which cause people to become climate refugees, remediating where prevention is not possible. There are those who separate the migration causing events even further by dividing events into sudden and gradual causation and whether the events are triggered by human activity or nature.

The closest thing we have to a working global definition is the one settled on by the United Nations, a definition markedly similar to Myer’s. The U.N. defines an environmental refugee as someone who is forced to leave their traditional habitat permanently, or temporarily, due to natural or anthropogenically caused environmental disruption. The environmental disruption may be the result of physical, chemical or biological changes in the ecosystem or resource base that render it unsuitable to support human life.

Theoretically, it does not matter what we label the millions of people who flee their homes due to environmental degradation and/or climate change because nomenclature does not change their circumstances. At the very best the label we will finally give climate refugees is a tool to ensure that they receive what we in the developed world take for granted: human rights, social justice, sufficient food, water and shelter to live a life of dignity and worth. At its worst, the final label we will give to climate refugees will be a tool of semantics; a device by which to dole out the blame and therefore the cost of these people. If climate change scientists are correct in their predictions the developed world will see climate refugees of its own. At that point a new ethical question will be wrestled with as we will have to ask ourselves “Is it ethical to treat first world refugees differently than the third world refugees who will fall victim first? “

Estimates on the number of climate refugees varies from 26 million to 1 billion by 20501; a number that can change tomorrow due to deteriorating conditions in the environment, natural disasters, as well as better, more detailed information from ongoing and new studies. The deputy high commissioner of the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the U.N. agency whose primary function is the protection of refugees, said in February of 2008 that “by 2050, hundreds of millions more people may become permanently displaced due to rising sea levels, floods, droughts, famine and hurricanes. The melting or collapse of ice sheets alone threaten the homes of one in twenty people. Increased desertification and the alteration of ecosystems…. are also likely to trigger large population displacements”.

The wide range in the estimates of refugees is due to the fact that researchers use differing definitions of what actually constitutes a climate refugee and that each study works from a different set of assumptions, uses different methods, timeframes, scenarios and measures different variables.

The only thing all the definitions agree on is that climate and environmental refugees may not ever be able to return to their homes. Climate refugees will arrive in groups, since a whole area will be affected at once by any said climatic event, which is something fairly unusual as people tend to migrate or immigrate as individuals or family groups. Permanent climate change and environmental refugees will have to be assimilated into either the population of a new area of their own nation or whatever country will accept them; creating new pressures on existing services and resources.

It is naivety of the highest degree to think that we can prevent environmental refugees from coming to the developed countries of the world, or that we will not have internal refugees of our own. One needs to look no further than the Mexican-American border so see how difficult it is to successfully halt illegal immigration of a determined population. The flow of immigrants across the Mexican-American border is a small number compared to the global potential. Climate change is projected to send immigrants from South and Central America, to the United States and Canada. People fleeing North Africa and the Middle East will go to Europe and those leaving South and Southeast Asia will go to Australia. Asia in particular is seen to be the greatest source of environmental refugees globally because of their profound rise in natural disasters, due in part to Asia’s phenomenal population growth; which has moved greater numbers of people into marginal areas. Refusing asylum to climate and environmental refugees is the ultimate act of moral denial.

A secondary aspect to climate refugees which receives negligible attention is the well being of those who cannot speak for themselves; what do we do about the about the plant and animal life endangered by the same climate and environmental factors which cause humans to flee an area? According to the United Nations 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, humans have increased the species extinction rate by over one thousand times the rate it was before we emerged from the mists. The global community must deal with the ethical issues surrounding floral and faunal refugees which will share, or should share, our exoduses.

While it is impossible to predict exactly what, where, when and how the vagaries of climate change will come into play it is in a very real sense predictable as to what the outcome will be in a given area and it is prudent for us to act on that knowledge. For example, it is no secret that island states such as the Maldives and low lying areas such as Bangladesh will be affected by rising sea levels and we know the approximate number of people who will be dislocated on a permanent basis. With strategic planning the disruption to both the refugees and the receiving area can be minimized somewhat and we owe the courtesy of preparation for these events to ourselves as global citizens.

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