Human Costs of a Warming World: Disaster and Displacement in the Face of Climate Change - Part 1

By Jonah Driggers

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees found this year that by the end of 2015, 65.3 million people — a group that if taken as a whole would form the 21st-largest nation on Earth — were forcibly displaced worldwide. This enormous population was swollen by record rates of displacement: 24 people displaced per minute in 2015 and 30 per minute in 2014.

Large populations of displaced persons and refugees are testing the capacity and willingness of the international community to respond and fueling nationalist movements around the world. These movements — driven in part by mistrust of outsiders and anger at economic gains of ethnic minorities in light of continuing economic stagnation for large portions of the traditional majority — have contributed to major events such as Brexit and the success of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. These events have significant implications and should not be ignored. But this extraordinary crisis of refugees and displacement is only a fraction of what is to come.

As global temperatures continue to rise — global mean temperature in 2015 measured about 1.57 degrees fahrenheit above the 1951-1980 average — sea level rises; droughts and heat waves increase in length and intensity; and hurricanes become stronger, more frequent, and longer-lasting. These effects will worsen in the future, with forecasts predicting a cumulative increase in temperatures of 2.5 to 10 degrees fahrenheit over the next century.

Already, entire nations such as Kiribati and the Maldives seek international assistance and asylum as their coastlines are subsumed by rising tides. Recent estimates have shown that by 2100 as many as 180 million people may be displaced by sea-level rise alone. These predictions dwarf the present refugee crisis and do not even begin to account for displacement by other climate impacts such as drought, famine, and scarcity-driven conflict.

In light of an ongoing refugee crisis that has already stretched the resource capacity and political willingness for response of countries around the world, we must consider large-scale displacement due to climate change as a severe threat to geopolitical stability and an immediate humanitarian crisis of the utmost concern.

We must act with urgency, scope, and intentionality to build resilience to climate impacts in communities around the world, and we must respond with compassion to those whose displacement we cannot prevent. Not to do so means acceptance of an unacceptable reality — destruction of billions or trillions of dollars in physical capital, significant threats to geopolitical stability, and countless affronts to human rights and dignity. This is a future we cannot afford.

This is the first post of four dealing with climate-driven displacement to be featured on Roosevelt at UGA’s blog, “Three Pillars: New Policy Perspectives From Under the Arch.” Future posts will explore the lack of internationally recognized status for climate refugees, ongoing response efforts by the United States Government to internal displacement due to domestic climate impacts, and the need for resilience-building on the Georgia coast.

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Jonah Driggers is a senior at the University of Georgia pursuing an M.S. in Conservation Ecology and Sustainable Development and a B.A. in Geography. He is the national Policy Coordinator for Energy and the Environment at the Roosevelt Institute Network.