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Climate Refugees

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorJanuary 5, 2010 7:23 AM


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As with wildfires, floods, and drought, connecting the dots between anthropogenic climate change and human migration is difficult. So I admire a story that explores the likely prospect of climate-driven refugees through the lens of recent environmental disasters. Joanna Kakissis pulls it off in this superb NYT story. I got to know Joanna last year, when both of us were Fellows at the University of Colorado's Center for Environmental Journalism. She's a talented reporter. When I heard she was going to Bangladesh, I knew a story on "climate refugees" would be a tough nut to crack. But I think she sets the right tone near the beginning of her Times piece, with this:

Natural calamities have plagued humanity for generations. But with the prospect of worsening climate conditions over the next few decades, experts on migration say tens of millions more people in the developing world could be on the move because of disasters.

I was going to expound more on the article's premise, but Brad Plumer captures my take with this excellent post. He writes,

In the past, many analysts argued that climate-driven migration would lead to tens of millions of "climate refugees" pouring into wealthy countries. Droughts in North Africa, say, would push people into Europe. (This explains why some European anti-immigration groups have adopted green rhetoric.) But more recent research suggests that most of the migration will take place within developing countries"”from rural areas to cities. And the main worry here is that these cities are already swelling exponentially, and their infrastructure can barely keep up, which is why many "megacities" sport massive slums.

As he then correctly notes,

the tricky part is tying these trends to climate change. After all, severe storms and droughts are nothing new. Nor is internal migration. People in developing countries have been flocking to cities for a long time, whether it's to seek out work or because the rainfall's dried up or because the soil's eroded away. We can say that global warming will exacerbate these pressures and greatly increase the pace of migration, but it's hard to attribute any single event"”or single migrant"”to man-made climate change.

Joanna's story opens a necessary window on the human dimension of "environmental refugees"; Brad's post is a really smart analysis on the complexity of the issue, especially when it's narrowly defined as a climate change problem.

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