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Extrapolating beyond current scientific predictions, an urgent treatise anticipates millions of climate migrants

Rising Tides: Climate Refugees in the Twenty-First Century

John R. Wennersten and Denise Robbins
Indiana University Press
2017
270 pp.
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Under a changing climate, the likelihood of extreme weather events will increase, affecting people’s lives all around the globe. Some areas will likely become unlivable or insufficient to support livelihoods, meaning many may choose to or be forced to leave their homes and move elsewhere. In Rising Tides, John Wennersten and Denise Robbins focus on these so-called “climate refugees,” millions of whom they predict will wander the world within the next few decades.

The book begins with a brief introduction into the migration-inducing effects of climate change, describing the potential devastation wrought by rising sea levels, floods, droughts, and the salination of farmland. These disasters are also projected to cause freshwater scarcity and food shortages that will, the authors claim, result in violent conflicts, displacing millions of people.

The largest part of the book is dedicated to regional analyses of the United States, the Caribbean, Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. The authors attempt to explain the specific climatic processes for each region in a comprehensive (if sometimes too deterministic) manner, making the local effects of a changing climate highly accessible for nonexpert readers.

JONAS GRATZER/LIGHTROCKET VIA GETTY IMAGES

The islands of Kiribati are only a few feet above sea level, placing them at great risk to rising oceans.

The chapter on the United States is especially detailed, highlighting past natural disasters such as Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy as examples of the type of storms that will occur more frequently in the future. Here, the authors draw the readers’ attention to sociopolitical issues around displacement, such as structural inequalities that make resettlement difficult, and claim that these are likely to increase as a result of climate displacement.

The authors also describe the important role that economic interrelations and world trading networks play in spreading the effects of climate change from one part of the world to another. They draw connections between, for example, food shortages and increasing prices in North Africa and a drought-induced grain shortage in China. They also argue that the uprisings and revolutions in countries such as Egypt and Tunisia can be directly related to the globalized dynamics of climate change.

However, although the authors represent the climate-conflict-migration nexus as obvious, this is far from settled. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has convincingly shown, no research has yet found a strong causal relationship between climate change and violent conflict (1). Also, decisions to migrate are not made only as a result of the degradation of land (the main focus of this book) but are usually influenced by a complex interplay of economic, political, demographic, social, and environmental factors (2).

The scenarios described in Rising Tides are thoroughly bleak, projecting that hundreds of millions of people will be displaced due to climate change by 2050. Much attention is dedicated to the argument that climate change will lead to international refugee crises as those displaced cross state, and even continental, borders. Unfortunately, this is at odds with current scientific research and, indeed, with the empirical examples provided in the book, both of which show that—like migration due to conflict—most environment-induced displacement takes place on a regional level, within or just across national borders.

The argument that the poorest of the poor in the developing world, who are considered to be most vulnerable to climatic changes, will attempt to make their way into the European Union or the United States, is especially unconvincing. Many might indeed prefer staying put over resettling in a new environment or, as the influential British Foresight Report has found, might lack the means to move out of regions vulnerable to the effects of climate change (3). This finding makes it no less urgent to find solutions for these cases but does not support the scenario of millions of climate refugees from developing countries flooding the Western world.

An “urgent wake-up call” to create awareness about the international issue of climate refugees is indeed much needed, but I fear that this book’s apocalyptic tone, as well as its disregard of the current—and much more moderate—scientific projections of climate change–induced migration, may create the wrong sort of urgency in the European and North American readers at whom it is undoubtedly targeted. Rather than seeing the climate-induced displacement as a potential threat to Western borders, we must commit to finding global, fair, and sustainable solutions.

References

  1. IPCC, Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2014)

  2. C. Fröhlich, Contemporary Levant 1, 38 (2016)

  3. Foresight: Migration and Global Environmental Change (The Government Office for Science, London, 2011)

About the author

The reviewer is at the Environmental Policy Group, Wageningen University and Research Centre, 6708 PB Wageningen, Netherlands.