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Climate refugees could be pushed into high-risk areas -- study

Colin Sullivan, E&E reporter
Published: Friday, October 28, 2011

NEW YORK -- Columbia University researchers yesterday warned that the hundreds of millions of people around the world expected to migrate by midcentury in response to climate change could end up trapped in areas of greater risk.

The scientists published a paper in Science that essentially affirmed the findings of a British study published last week that said climate-induced migration could lead many into more vulnerable areas.

That study, from the government-backed Foresight Program, said a good deal of uncertainty persists regarding mass migration and how many people might be on the move by 2060 (ClimateWire, Oct. 21). The Columbia report came to much the same conclusions.

Both warned that hundreds of millions, many of them impoverished, might be in need of migratory assistance from rural coastal floodplains by 2060, with many millions more pushed out of urban coastal floodplains in Africa and Asia by the end of the period.

At Columbia, report lead author Alex de Sherbinin, with the Center for International Earth Science Information Network, said many climate refugees could end up in areas vulnerable to drought, sea-level rise and other environmental stressors.

"We're not trying to be alarmist," de Sherbinin said. "But my own view is if you look at a 4 degree [Celsius] warming as a potential, you're going to see massive reconfiguration of systems -- ecosystem boundaries and maybe even new ecosystems that haven't been in the past."

The paper cautions against pursuit of mitigation projects without attempting to anticipate their effect on migration corridors. The study argues that planning, adaptation and financing for migration within and between countries should become a major priority.

The scientists also warned that experts have yet to properly break down the role of climate against factors like economic uncertainty and political unrest.

"More study is needed to understand these dynamics, particularly the impact of any projects designed to mitigate or adapt to the effects of climate change," the researchers wrote in a blog post. "Many such projects already are in the works, including plans for large dams for hydropower, reservoirs to cope with drought and biofuel plantations, with a common element that they affect potentially large areas where people are already living."

'Treading a fine line'

When asked if that means governments shouldn't freeze action altogether on such projects, de Sherbinin said he hoped his paper would help decisionmakers grasp the need for better planning of mitigation without impeding progress in that area.


"We found ourselves treading a fine line," de Sherbinin wrote in an email. "We don't want to appear in any way to be advocating these large-scale projects, which often have dubious climate benefits at best, but we recognize that politically speaking there is a lot of impetus to be seen to be doing something to address climate change."

He pointed to many hydropower projects under the United Nations' Clean Development Mechanism and biofuel plantations as "oversold in many instances," but admitted such projects remain politically popular.

The research also looked at past examples of migration for guidance and found that many large dam projects built since the 1930s resulted in loss of shelter, land, employment and access to resources. Many poor communities were relocated to marginal lands or less-valued habitats, the paper says.

A co-author of the report, Michael Cernea, elaborated on the paper's findings in this regard, saying mitigation measures should continue because they lower carbon output. But the study at the same time urges government officials to think about accommodating "resettlers" in a way that's more humane than past resettlements.

In the past, Cernea said, those displaced were "not resettled as communities, but [were] scattered all over as 'in-fill populations', or left to their own devices to go where they could."

"This is, despite what social science recommends, namely offering the displaced populations the opportunities of relocating as groups, communities, neighborhoods, kinship systems, etc., which would preserve social cohesion, social capital, network of mutual help and so on," he said in an email.

The areas already affected include Alaska's northwest coast, where loss of sea ice as a natural buffer against storms is pushing natives out of their homes. Resettlements have also taken place in the Mekong River Delta of Vietnam, the Limpopo River of Mozambique, the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region of China, and islands of Papua New Guinea in the South Pacific, the report says.

The Columbia analysis, "Preparing for Resettlement Associated with Climate Change," was published yesterday in the journal Science.


Reprinted from ClimateWire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net. 202-628-6500

 

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Reprinted from climatewire-10-31_11-11 with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net. 202-628-6500.


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