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.

The Pope Gifts Trump Light Reading on Climate Change

Pope Francis and Trump
He may be smiling here, but the Pope was a frowning Franciscan for much of his photo ops with the Trumps (Photo Credit: White House)

The images from Pope Francis’ recent meeting with President Trump and his family are priceless. Inexplicably donning black dresses and veils as if for a funeral, Ivanka and Melania stand with stricken expressions beside the grinning President. A healthy distance to his left, slumps Pope Francis, a dour frown on his face. It’s a color-coded portrait of good and evil in the same frame.

During the visit, the two leaders exchanged gifts. Trump offered a set of books by Martin Luther King, Jr., while the Pope slyly bestowed Trump with his 2015 encyclical on climate change. Whether or not this will change Trump’s perspective on compromising the environmental fate of the world remains to be seen.

The upside: this is no global warming rant by a left wing conspiracist, as many a climate scientist is perceived to be. Pope Francis even kicks off his encyclical gently, noting that his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, “reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us.”

Who doesn’t want to be embraced by a beautiful madre? Certainly Trump would be eager for such maternal cuddling. Given the President’s respect for the Pope, he may be open to his message on climate change–and even to his concern for the refugees displaced by climate change.

“There has been a tragic rise in the number of migrants seeking to flee from the growing poverty caused by environmental degradation,” Francis remarks, noting that these migrants are not legally considered refugees.

Pope Francis
Forget about girl on fire–the words in this Vatican-made meme are on fire as they celebrate the Pope’s climate change encyclical.

If Trump is of sound mind (arguable), he might even perceive Pope Francis’ not-so-subtle tactic embedded in the gift and grow angry. Why is the Pope trying to manipulate him into making bad deals for America with what is essentially a long, boring list?

“He’s a showboat,” I picture Trump muttering under his breath as he flips through the encyclical. “A factory-fresh white Lamborghini. A not-so-great Versace suit you get ketchup up. A slice of cream cheese cake with 24 karat gold sprinkles on top. Look, that’s what he is. You know that, I know that, even Catholics know that.”

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.

Blaming the Media, Blaming Ourselves

When things don’t go our way, we lay blame. It’s our way of understanding and rationalizing what happened. Grasping who or what is responsible for undesirable outcomes makes us feel like we have better control of future outcomes. We’re striving to learn from our mistakes.

When we elected Donald Trump on Tuesday, we blamed ignorance. We blamed white men. We blamed the Republican Party. The Democratic Party. The electoral college. The polling process. The two-party system. And a lot of us blamed the media.

The media, we argue, gave Trump undue coverage. It may have been negative coverage, but as the old saying goes, succès de scandal, or “there is no such thing as bad publicity.

We also blame the media for inciting violence, ignoring climate change, and providing biased information on just about everything. But what responsibility does the media really hold?

Here are three reasons why we cannot lay the blame for a Trump victory–or anything else–on the media’s doorstep:

  1. We aren’t paying enough for our media. Even public media like PBS or NPR are only funded in small part by the government, drawing additional resources from individuals and private companies. Most of our media companies are held by large mass media conglomerates. We consume information freely online or pay small subscriber fees for print resources, while the real costs are borne by advertisers.
  2. We don’t hold media to standards. Legally, the media can provide fallacious information. Since media is mostly privately funded, we can’t hold the media to funding-contingent ethical standards. While the media is answerable to its readership, it is by no means obligated to capture an even swath of issues, give multiple sides to a story, or pursue objectivity by the FCC or any other regulating agency unless we demand it through boycott.
  3. Media is increasingly bottom up. No longer do we listen to a few trusted media sources. Today, we often turn to social media and individual blogs and pundits for information. Certainly, there is no way to regulate the dissemination of half-truths, subjectivity, and lies through social media, nor would we want to wade into such dangerous territory.

The solution? The onus is on the individual to be a discerning consumer of media. Corresponding to the above issues of media culpability, we might:

  1. Increase public media funding. One avenue is to advocate for higher public funding for media so it’s less dependent upon corporate and ad funding. However, one might argue that this would make the media increasingly obligated to defend political status quos.
  2. Pursue media reform. If we want media held to standards, we might pursue legislation to do just that. Additionally, we should vow to suffocate media that traffics in fallacies, as well as media purporting to be objective yet clearly veering into subjective territory by declining to consume it.
  3. Act as stewards of knowledge on social media. We should pop our information bubbles by listening to voices that differ from our own so that we can understand them. We should also take it upon ourselves to debunk fallacies and spread sound information.

Just as we are responsible for the media that informs us, we are also responsible for this election. Only about half of this country voted. We wrote off Donald Trump and his supporters as a joke and an impossibility. We blindly trusted polls. We retreat deeper and deeper into our filter bubbles.

While some people likely voted for Trump because his bigotry appeals to them, the exit polls show that many voted for him because they wanted change–the same word that triggered the election of Barack Obama in 2004. If someone longs for change, they are unhappy and fearful.


Increasingly, I see Trump’s election as an act of desperation by his primarily white voter base. White people currently comprise 63% of the population, and by July 2011, minority births exceeded white births. Black Lives Matter has gained the nation’s ear, and millions of people are supporting the fight at Standing Rock. Gay marriage is legal and marijuana is becoming decriminalized around the country. We elected a black president for two terms. We have a long way to go, but we’ve made major gains.

I think Trump’s election shows that progressive causes are (slowly) winning (but then again, what happens quickly in this country?). Minorities are winning. The fight against fossil fuels is winning. And this terrifies the status quo of America and the less than 20% who qualify as rural–those who don’t know how to succeed in a new era of globalization, digital revolution, environmental reform, and heterogeneity.

We will move past this. We will elect a progressive leader again who endeavors to undo the harms that Trump will undoubtedly commit during his term. Some wrongs will never be righted–like the 3.4 billion additional tons of CO2 that his administration will unleash semi-permanently into our atmosphere.

For many, Trump’s election is a devastating setback. But let’s view it as a sign that equality and environmental protection are on the victory path, and that for some, that’s a scary thing.