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The Political Era of Climate Refugees

Global warming/climate change is one of the most potent agents of political and economic change in history. Its impact is like Atilla the Hun in modern times, who back in the day struck terror into the hearts of the Roman Empire.

As of recent, Europe has been inundated with refugees from Middle Eastern wars as well as refugees from ecosystem collapse all across the southern Mediterranean region. The refugee impact is felt far and wide, including Brexit and a concomitant rise of xenophobia throughout the West whilst altering politics towards antagonism, hatred, and malevolence. The world is turning mad, and madness turns to madman leaders, like Attila the Hun. In point of fact, world history is filled with examples of madmen leading countries, ultimately to demise. They prey upon foreign threats of change to lifestyle and work to motivate people. Climate change is providing plenty of material to work with by displacing millions.

Yet, the massive European immigrant problem of today is only a small taste of what the future holds as millions upon millions of people become climate refugees. It’s an open question whether politics turn evermore ugly hate-filled as the world boils over with too much heat, too much sea, too much desertification, too much drought, too much friction.

Recently, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development committed to America’s first ever grant for climate refugees, allocating $48 million for Isle de Jean Charles in southeastern Louisiana out of total grants of $1 billion for 13 states to build levees, dams, and drainage systems to fight back against anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change.

Isle de Jean Charles is the first allocation of federal tax dollars to move an entire community of climate refugees. In the 1950s the isle was 11 miles long by 5 miles wide. Today, it is a quarter/mile wide by 2 miles long. The community must move to higher ground.

According to Marine Franck of the UN’s refugee agency, “One person is displaced every second by a natural disaster. The numbers are huge,” (Amy Lieberman, Where Will the Climate Refugees Go? Aljazeera, Dec. 22, 2015).

Climate refugees are becoming a worldwide phenomenon of epic proportions, e.g., 200,000 Bangladeshis become homeless every year due to erosion. Globally, “desertification—climate change-triggered degradation of land ecosystems—might, in a decade, create 50 million refugees, the Economics of Land Degradation (ELD), a global initiative led by 30 different research groups, warned in a new study….” (Avaneesh Pandey, Land Degradation, Desertification Might Create 50 Million Climate Refuges Within A Decade, International Business Times, Sept. 15, 2015).

The operative question is: Where will 50 million refugees go over the next 10 years? Will they roam the countryside, similar to bands of medieval wanderers that raided castle fortifications? Back in the day, they learned to scale walls, which only serve to entice outsiders, knowing something of value must be stored inside.

Rampant drought is believed to have played a role in Syria’s civil war. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences claims unprecedented drought in Syria between 2007-2010 triggered an exodus of 1.5 million farmers to cities in search of food and work, a contributing factor to the civil war as these restless able-bodied met a mean-spirited, heartless fate.

“Climatologists say Syria is a grim preview of what could be in store for the larger Middle East, the Mediterranean and other parts of the world… The Fertile Crescent—the birthplace of agriculture some 12,000 years ago— is drying out” (John Wendle, The Ominous Story of Syria’s Climate Refugees, Scientific American, Dec. 17, 2015). When interviewed, Syrian refugees in a Turkish camp spoke of the horrendous drought conditions that fueled social turmoil leading to civil war.

According to Dr. James Hansen (Columbia University), heat waves and drought conditions worldwide are more than three standard deviations outside of the norm, or looked at another way, 50 years ago such anomalies only covered 0.02% of land area. Now, because of global warming, the anomalies cover 10% or an increase of 50 times in 50 years. This exponential growth will ultimately serve to pressure massive movements of climate refugees, likely fostering pockets of war zones spreading like infectious diseases.

In China, which is now 20% desert, spreading at the rate of 1,300 square miles annually, three deserts are merging into one vast sea of sand. Recently, because of creeping desertification, the Chinese government relocated 30,000 people referred to as “ecological migrants,” (Josh Haner, et al, Living in China’s Expanding Deserts, New York Times, October 23, 2016).

In America, climate refugees are on the move, but they are not yet smack dab in the public eye. In Newtok, Alaska, the highest point in town, the school building, will be under water in 2017. Climate change is not just hotter temperatures for the residents of Alaska, it is happening under their feet as shoreline erosion is forcing the entire community to move inland. “In Alaska alone, climate change flooding and shoreline erosion already affects more than 180 villages,” (Victoria Herrmann, America’s Climate Refugee Crisis Has Already Begun, The LA Times, January 25, 2016).

In the years to come, thousands upon thousands from along America’s most fragile shorelines will embark on a great migration inland. In the Chesapeake Bay, Tangier Island’s shoreline recedes by 14 feet per year. On Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, the Quinault Nation relies upon a 2,000-foot seawall to hold water until they move uphill. In North Carolina’s Outer Bank with its 50,000 permanent residents, portions of the island complex are down to 25% original width. Miami Beach is physically raising roadways because of persistent high water.

As it happens, America’s climate refugee problem is only starting, but it is very real and likely a political tinderbox as Americans register sourpuss displeasure with any kind of migrant behavior evidenced by support for political candidates like Donald Trump, who uses the hopelessness of the forlorn as political fodder, eerily similar to Attila the Hun’s rise to power. On a purely political basis, immigrant finger-pointing pays off in votes for candidates who offer solutions to the invasion of “others” that threaten constituent jobs and lifestyle.

Germany provides a window to how migrant issues influence politics. “A year after German Chancellor Angela Merkel opened Germany’s doors to tens of thousands of refugees… she’s fighting for her political life. Her popularity has sunk to a five-year low. The far right is ascendant,” (Paul Hockenos, The Political Price of Merkel’s Migrant Policy, The Atlantic, Sept. 14, 2016).

Meanwhile, Austria militarized its borders.

People Up In Arms is how migrants are met at some foreign shores. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said he will tour European capitals to recruit allies for his “war against Brussels” and the Union’s pro-migrant policies as “people in Brussels are ‘plotting to move and settle these aliens among us as soon as possible,” (Viktor Orbán’s Speech: War Against the World, Hungarian Spectrum.org, March 16, 2016).

“Where will 50 million climate refugees go over the next 10 years” is a fair question to ponder, but what if the scientists that predict rising seas and devastating droughts are too conservative, and what if global warming is already way ahead of the science, as some scientists believe true, will 200 or 500 million climate refugees seek shelter and food, or how about one billion?

The politics surrounding the climate refugee issues too often come to surface dressed in warriors’ garb. “When the Pentagon begins to think about what might happen, that’s a clear indication that we have to start taking something seriously,” is the forewarning mentioned in the award-winning documentary Climate Refugees (2010) (watch the trailer here).

Never before in American political history has an election carried as much weight for the prospects for the climate as the current presidential election in America. The issue of climate change front and center is a non-issue, a dead issue. However, Trump will reverse any and all progress made by the federal government, including disruption of the Paris Agreement of 2015, if at all possible. That message would be a devastating blow to worldwide efforts to control climate change.

Meanwhile, the climate refugee conundrum will turn very ugly much more quickly.

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Robert Hunziker lives in Los Angeles and can be reached at rlhunziker@gmail.com.

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