Saturday, March 14, 2009

Global Warming, Mass Migration, and US

NPR had a good discussion up this past Thursday (3/12/09) about climate change and its effects on humanity. Their basic premise was that although most people see climate change affecting rain forests, glaciers, polar bears and so forth, they fail to see global warming's direct impact on people.

Their guests had some excellent things to say from first hand experience. Christina Chan of CARE USA:

I don't think that climate change has been an underlying cause of the poverty and injustice we've seen in the past. Poorer communities have dealt with drought, floods, cyclones, hurricanes for generations. The difference now is in terms of the frequency, intensity, and severity. There will be more.

A drought or a flood might hit a community and hit the poorest of the poor in that community, maybe every seven years. What we see happening now is an increase in the intensity, frequency, and so there's less time to recover. And so if it's happening every year or every other year, a drought in one year, a flood in another, families, especially families with very little assets can't recover as quickly. The resilience is lower. So what we're seeing is the challenges we've been facing for say the last 60 years are going to be that much more complex and difficult with climate change.

Cynthia Awuor of CARE Internationa added her perspective, describing some of the tangible effects of climate change now manifesting in developing countries, in this case, Kenya:

With increased droughts, food production is being affected negatively, so there's repeated crop failures. And even at the moment as I speak drought has been occurring in Kenya and we have famine. We are experiencing famine at the moment that's affecting about 10 million people out of a population of about 38 million.

And the women that we work with in some of the regions are saying that they're feeling that the temperatures are becoming higher, so it's become hotter, and it becomes taxing on their bodies when they have to walk long distances to actually look for water because sometimes the search for water takes up to six hours a day.

Chan went on to add that those in high-income countries need to care and push their policy makers to address the issue:

What people here in the United States can do, I think it is important to watch as individuals our own carbon footprint. But I think it's really important as citizens of the United States to really put pressure on our policy makers cause they're not hearing it. Especially these days with the economic situation, my fear is that climate change will be put on the back burner.

It's a good 7 minute discussion definitely worth listening to HERE.

I did think, however, that while the typical NPR listener might be interested in the piece, a majority of the public wouldn't give a rip since the piece indirectly intimated that global warming wasn't having any significant impact on them. In short, nothing in the piece suggested global warming would affect people in the U.S.

The thing is, even popular media has occasionally reported the long-term effects global warming will have on mass migration, as those in the most affected areas are forced to leave their homelands. Looking ahead to 2050, a Reuters article notes:

The daunting prospect of mass population movements set off by climate change and environmental disasters poses an imminent new challenge that no one has yet figured out how to meet.

People displaced by global warming ... could dwarf the nearly 10 million refugees and almost 25 million internally displaced people already fleeing wars and oppression.

And not surprisingly, should mass migration inflate to unprecedented levels, in all likelihood xenophobic reactions will inflate accordingly.

Refugees may also feel the world has less room for them as they try to cross borders into countries where hostility to migrants of all sorts has grown, compared with the Cold War era when fugitives from communism won sympathy and asylum.

Of course this is not to suggest that we should get people to care about the earth by scaring them with the potential influx of immigration and refugees. However, we do need to wake up and realize that global warming will
directly affect those in high-income countries as resources inevitably shrink.

But that's 2050, a good forty years away. Maybe our kids or grand kids will have to worry about it, but not us. In the spirit of typical American individualism, it's a "them" problem for them to figure out. Not so according to the Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World report, published by the U.S. National Intelligence Council.

The report itself is quite lengthy, a good 100+ pages. However, it has important sections focusing on climate change and its varied ramifications. In Chapter 4, titled "Scarcity in the Midst of Penty?", the authors write of global warming's global impact:

Most displaced persons traditionally relocate within their home countries, but in the future many are likely to find their home countries have diminishing capabilities to accommodate them. Thus the number of migrants seeking to move from disadvantaged into relatively privileged countries is likely to increase. The largest inflows will mirror many current migratory patterns—from North Africa and Western Asia into Europe, Latin America into the US, and Southeast Asia into Australia. (p. 53).

And again, we're talking 2025, a mere 16 years from now. If our current global economic crisis is a problem, think about the sheer number of people who simply will not be able to live at a subsistence level, how that number will explode, and how it will increase mass dependence and competition. Furthermore, the report explicitly states that climate change can and often does stimulate war.

Climate change is unlikely to trigger interstate war, but it could lead to increasingly heated interstate recriminations and possibly to low-level armed conflicts. With water becoming more scarce in several regions, cooperation over changing water resources is likely to be increasingly difficult within and between states, straining regional relations. (p. 66).

Recall what served as the catalyst for ethnic genocide in the Sudanese region of Darfur back in 2003. While fundamental ethnic differences set the stage for divided groups who would soon be in major conflict, it was a loss of crops due to climate changes that sparked the conflict.

Either we get a handle on global warming now, or we see Darfur more frequently, with greater intensity, and closer to home before we know it.

(Photo courtesy of Reuters)

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