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Thursday, February 8, 2007

Climate change as a cause of migration

By Aapo Markkanen: Tampere

The UN-backed panel on climate change released its latest report on climate change last Friday; the official summary (as a PDF) can be read here, and a less jargon-riddled one with less numbers and technical detail can be found here. If we compare this report with what we have heard before then there wasn't much that was really new, yet one thing had surely changed -and that was the tone. If the human contribution to global warming was previously considered "likely" this time it was considered to be "very likely", which inthe present context means a probability of between 90 and 95 per cent. And modern science, in this case, can't take you much further.

So there is a broad consensus on the fact that the climate is changing, and this in part is due to human activity, this consensus has now become firm and widespread, and polemics -when they occur- are now more about the level of gravity of the consequences and the usefulness of attempts at prevention; whether it really pays off to do something, or is it too late or too costly. Hence the panel's forthcoming reports, the ones that will continue to document climatic damage and outline proposals for action, may stir rather more controversy. However this one at least was received without too many relevant disputes.

Now possibly it sounds somewhat banal to lump the climatic process together with, say, the demographic transition and country level trade deficits (not that it'd make those any less dramatic; the scale of situation, when we're speaking of processes that can have an effect over a millennium or two, just happens to be different), but it is worth pointing out that climate change also has its own global imbalances. As is known, it will impact different parts of the world in different ways - basically the northern hemisphere will gain relatively more temperature than the southern one - but also because the zillions of climatic interrelations that occur make predicting the phenomena a damn tricky topic. For example seawater is warming up mostly in the tropics, but it's then the combination of equatorial rains and north atlantic oscillation that is making the weather milder particularly in the northern latitudes. As well, one myth about climate change is that the Gulf Stream would be changing its directions - as a result of the melting glaciers, that release fresh water (with a lower density) into the seawater and thus redirect streams - but it seems now that the consensus feels that this effect will be too small to counter the overall trend.

So in general terms, the globe is getting warmer everywhere. As for rainfall, northern Europe and both Americas are expected to moisten, whereas the Mediterranea, Middle East and southern Africa will most probably experience 'drying up'. And the weather will be a good deal more unpredictable too; rains are more likely to turn into floods, storms into hurricanes, and heatwaves into draughts. Something that you've surely heard of already.

Global warming may well be the single most important factor to determine migration flows in the future, so its impact on demography should certainly not be be disregarded. Some countries, or at least parts of them, will become uninhabitably dry, or hazardous, whereas some others may simply vanish under the sea. Take for example Bangladesh, the land that is often perceived as a prime example of such risk - being as densely populated as it is flat. (It should be noted at this point however that the question of sea levels is perhaps the one that still requires more answers. This is where the estimations vary most, as all factors contributing to the effect aren't known; for example the antarctic sea ice has so far decreased only minimally, probably because of increased snowfall. But then again, Bangladesh is very flat.) And you can probably guess where the inhabitants there, the Bengalis, would most rather go, in case they'll have to move from their homes. This is one aspect that we shouldn't forget, when discussing demographics in India.

The causes which can trigger large scale emigration can, of course, be indirect too -such as the conlifcts arising from shortages of either land or water. This brief paper -by Idean Salehyan, from University of California, San Diego- argues that from the perspective of conflict prevention the distinction between the direct and indirect reasons for emigration is a pretty important one. The ones fleeing the disaster itself, are less likely to be politicized than the ones that have already taken part in a civil war over ever-scarcer resources in their country of origin.

And if we're to try and predict environmental migration, then it'd maybe make sense to have a look at some current statistics; they tell quite clearly that the vast majority of refugees tend to concentrate in those countries which neighbour-on the sites of the orgininating conflict and danger. While there are always a number of refugess who make it to the West, most of them tend to end up somewhere nearby - where they form communities, and thus, in the course of time, begin to attract even more newcomers. So the biggest burden most usually falls upon countries that are only slightly better off than their troubled neighbours - and, as I would argue, this disparity of responsibilities will merely increase during times of climatic risk. If there's a hasard like, say, a disastrous flood or draught, then it won't surely recognise any borders, and if a country is poor it can can seldom afford the same protection as its richer counterpart. Millions will be between the devil and the deep blue sea -and quite literally so, at least when it comes to the latter.