What the New IPCC Report Says About Climate Migration

In case you’ve been living in a cave under the Empire State Building for the last decade (as a flight attendant I flew with recently quipped about the art of seatbelt fastening), you’ve probably heard about the new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Report.

The primary claim? Even 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming will require profound changes to the way we humans live. The other big takeaway is that the difference between just .5 degrees Celsius of warming is profound.

I am surprised that everyone is so surprised.

In a world that’s just one degree Celsius warmer, we’re already seeing people desert their island homes, coasts endure unprecedented storms, and conflicts erupt over drought. Way back in 2009, the president of the Maldives fought to cut global emissions calling even two degrees Celsius of warming “suicide” for island nations like his own. While the science is not necessarily new, the level of confidence and consensus from a conservative body (the IPCC) raises the stakes.

I wondered immediately what this new report had to say about migration caused by climate change. The term “migration” makes dozens of appearances throughout the report. The IPCC says that farmers are moving due to climate change and people are retreating inland or leaving islands due to rising seas.

The IPCC is cautious in binding climate change with violence, but it does conjure up some key evidence. We know, for example, that a one-degree-Celsius temperature increase (which we’ve already sustained) and more intense rain increases conflict by 14%. And since violence can also lead to migration, the assumption is that we’re looking at even more people moving directly or indirectly as a result of climate change. 

environmental migration
Credit: Gallup, 2011

Commendably, the IPCC treats migration as a way of adapting to climate change. This is not to be overlooked. At a time when migration is often discussed in negative terms, we need to remember that if your environment can no longer provide you sufficient water, food, a habitable, reasonably safe climate, and a livelihood, your choice is often between moving or, frankly, death, which is not a choice at all.

The report says that migration, in fact, is already used as a way to “protect livelihoods” from climate impacts. The IPCC argues that when people are unable to migrate in order to adapt, “adverse” outcomes arise. This reminds me of the concept of “trapped populations” that researcher Basundhara Tripathy of Bangladesh shared with me. In rural areas of Bangladesh, men move away to the city for work, while the women are left behind, fearing the lack of social protections available in an unfamiliar urban environment.

The IPCC does caution that it’s not sure (read: medium evidence, low agreement) whether migration actually makes sense from a financial standpoint. In other words, the migrant often finds herself or himself low on the socioeconomic totem pole at their destination. Furthermore, they may not even be able to reach their destination due to “low political and legal acceptability.” Could they be head-nodding toward Europe’s barbed wire fences and xenophobia? Or Trump’s continuous political and verbal attacks on immigrants and refugees alike?

Ultimately, while the IPCC makes numerous references to how climate change will spawn migration, it concludes that its understanding of the connections between climate change and migration are “limited.” In other words, it’s complicated and we need more research. This is no surprise, given how difficult it can be to determine migration motivations (when they’re often manifold and complicated) and track migration pathways, when many of them are often forged illegally.

Wildfire Season in Utah

wildfire utah

For what seems like the 10th time this summer, smoke fills our skies here in Utah. The nearby mountains grow hazy. We are coughing and our eyes turn red–so does the sky. The sunsets are ironically beautiful, obscuring the not-so-beautiful truth about why the West is on fire every summer.

Why? Out west, we are drier, we are hotter, and we are even hotter real estate for beetles that devour and kill our pine trees, rendering them fuel.

Kamas wildfire
Eerie skies above Kamas

Of course, fires are part of many ecosystem cycles and are not inherently bad. It doesn’t help, however, that for years, the Forest Service vilified forest fires (looking at you, Smoky!), which generated landscapes chock-full of fuel in the form of dense forest and brush. It also doesn’t help that we now build en masse in these forests, and that people venture into them and set off fireworks or fail to extinguish their campfires.

As I sit in my log cabin backing a hill that gives way to the High Uintas, I am well aware of the fact that I am writing inside of a tinder box. If a fire dances down the brittle, dry hill behind me, our house stands little chance.

Should we move? To do so seems preemptive and crazy. The other problem with this question is the follow-up query of: Where? If we want to live in the mountains, then we are most likely in wildfire terrain. Deserts and coasts have their own fair share of climate change ills ahead. So, for now, we shut our windows, stay put, and pray for rain.

A “Potential Apocalypse” Lurking in Antarctica?

Ross Ice Shelf
Going, going, gone? (Photo Credit: NY Times)

160 feet. That’s how much sea levels could rise if the entire Antarctic ice sheet disintegrated.

What would that mean for the world? We’re already witnessing the sinking of small island nations thanks to a warming ocean and the melting of glaciers at both poles. But if the Antarctic ice sheet melts, we’d see an increase in ocean volume dramatic enough to alter the entire world map.

Even wealthy cities like London and New York that can afford sea walls and other coastal defenses would be calling uncle by the turn of the next century. The ocean would swallow and destroy the world’s greatest metropolises, perched strategically by water.

More of this to come (Photo by Johndal)

Recently, the New York Times published “Antarctic Dispatches,” a three-part series on this disaster brewing in Antarctica. Reporter Justin Gillis toured the icy continent on a Columbia University expedition. He calls the prospective melting of Antarctica “a potential apocalypse, depending on exactly how fast it happened.”

Antarctic ice melting
Image Credit: NY Times

This wouldn’t be the first time humans have experienced massive flooding (a subject covered extensively in Brian Fagan’s The Attacking Ocean, which I’m currently listening to on CD in my car).

When the Ice Age drew to a close thousands of years ago, the melting of ice sheets that covered Russia, Europe, and North America flooded some of the places that our hunter/gatherer ancestors called home. These deluges may even explain the common trope of flooding in mythology ranging from Hindu lore to Noah and the Ark.

But when this flooding occurred many thousands of years ago, there were but a few million primitive humans inhabiting the Earth. These mobile communities had plenty of space to which to relocate.

When oceans redraw our coasts now, they impact a world filled with 7.5 billion-and-counting people, who are by comparison immobile and made further immobilized by borders and immigration restrictions. It’s no longer so simple to pick up and go.

Today, the Greenland and Antarctic sheets are among the last remnants of the Ice Age, but they might not be around for long.

After presenting stunning visualizations of ice flow patterns, Gillis is kind enough to end on a hopeful note: it’s not too late to sharply cut greenhouse gas emissions and avert some of the forecasted melting. While we are already locked into a certain amount of warming that will increase sea levels, we could avert the fate of nearly 200 feet of sea level rise in the next couple centuries.