CREDIT: Wutthichai / Shutterstock.com
It’s impossible to know exactly how many people will flee their home countries due to climate change, or even count how many have done so already, but that’s no reason to rest easy.
A BBC debunking of estimated numbers of climate migrants makes clear the danger of focusing on big, scary figures. The piece focuses on various estimates made by politicians and scientists (20 million displaced in 2008, 50 million in 2010, 200 million in 2050) and finds other experts who don’t quite agree with the methodology, or won’t commit to saying the estimates are correct.
None of the quoted experts question the fact that climate-induced migration is occurring, and will only grow over time, but as long as there are numbers to argue over, that point is lost. The reader comes away with the sense that the very idea of people having to move due to a changing climate is in question.
But between rising sea levels and dust-bowlification, there is no question that currently populated areas are going to become uninhabitable due to climate change, and that people will be forced to move.
CREDIT: Aiguo Dai, National Center for Atmospheric Research
Shifts in precipitation brought on by the warming climate are likely to leave larger parts of the world in persistent, deep drought. The Summer of 2013 has already seen historic droughts across the American West, with an accompanying explosion of wildfires.
While we don’t know how many people will be displaced in 2050, climate projections do show that Dust Bowl-like conditions could stretch from Kansas to California. Extreme drought conditions could cover southern Europe, south-east Asia, Brazil, the U.S. Southwest, and large parts of Australia and Africa — some of the most populated areas on Earth. And typically, the human reaction to such conditions is to migrate, just as Americans did during the dust bowl era of the 1930s.
Besides displacing people, turning these regions into Dust Bowls would have disastrous effects on our ability to grow enough food to feed the world. Drought, hunger, and resulting migration in Syria has even been tied to the incredibly bloody conflict that has been raging there for two years.
And that’s even before we get to the rise in sea levels that threatens the very existence of some island and coastal populations. With six feet of sea level rise, a reasonable expectation by the end of the century, half of South Florida will be underwater.
Any accurate prediction of how all these factors could come together to displace people is going to be very difficult to get right, and can be easily seized to attempt to discredit the more important point, which is not in question. Climate change will create refugees, and we can only mitigate that by adapting to its effects and slowing carbon emissions.