Saturday, November 1, 2014

A closer look at ‘climate refugees’

Max Martin in On the sidelines of last month’s international conference on small island developing states (SIDS) in Samoa, Kiribati’s president, Anote Tong, said: “I have never encouraged the status of our people being refugees.”

It was a strong denial of the term ‘climate refugee’, which appears in media stories
galore. Sadly, such stories often portray the risk of displacement for inhabitants of Pacific island states such as Kiribati and Samoa in a way that is reminiscent of cartoons of a shipwrecked man on a desert island. Of course, we should not dismiss the threat of sea-level rise. Numerous low-lying islands, deltas and coastlines could lose land not only as a direct impact of it, but also due to increased erosion and wave impacts.

Yet in reality, it is not solely the prospect of the edges of their homelands sinking that drives people from islands, as new research shows. A study led by Robert Stojanov of Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic analysed key environmental factors considered to influence population movement in Tuvalu. They found that, though this Pacific island state is threatened by sea-level rise, many other factors including water insecurity, some of which interact with climate change, drive large population movements.

The authors examined existing types of environment-related migration and displacement — namely migration for economic reasons and displacement due to development projects, as well as events such as rising sea level and cyclones.

Their study shows that Tuvaluans who can foresee climate and environment-related impacts get enough time to plan their movements. But other research shows that sometimes people are forced to move without such plans because they experience events such as unusually high tides — known locally as ‘king tides’ — that increasingly inundate parts of the islands....

Funafuti Atoll in Tuvalu, shot by Stefan Lins, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons 2.0 license

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