25 October 2009

42 Days - Climate Refugees ... Already Starting to Happen

At our International Day of Climate Action event yesterday in my small community (15 people showed up! I was shocked ... only expected 3 or 4, and we had a learn-in and lament and a rich discussion of the future we can create), we talked about the fact that climate change is already happening, so how can people deny its existence?

Economist Lester Brown, of the Earth Policy Institute, wrote in The Grist recently about the rising tide of environmental refugees: "Our early twenty-first century civilization is being squeezed between advancing deserts and rising seas."

Though many of us lucky ones still haven't been impacted by the changing climate — at least not in any way that we can see or complain about — Brown relates the stories of would-be refugees found dead in their small boats, or in the deserts. In some cases, poverty drove these people to seek a new home. In some cases, the poverty was caused by desertification of their croplands. Let us be frightened by the numbers and shed a tear for these people. They could soon be our own children or grandchildren.

Here are snippets of his article to, I hope, evoke empathy and compassion for these refugees. There but for the grace of God....
Measured by the biologically productive land area that can support human habitation, the earth is shrinking.

Desert expansion in sub-Saharan Africa, principally in the Sahelian countries, is displacing millions of people.

We do not know whether they [these refugees] were political, economic, or environmental refugees. Failed states like Somalia produce all three. We do know that Somalia is an ecological disaster, with overpopulation, overgrazing, and the resulting desertification destroying its pastoral economy.

Today, bodies washing ashore in Italy, Spain, and Turkey are a daily occurrence, the result of desperate acts by desperate people.

Many of those who try to cross the Arizona desert [from Mexico] perish in its punishing heat. Since 2001, some 200 bodies have been found along the Arizona border each year.

With the vast majority of the 2.4 billion people to be added to the world by 2050 coming in countries where water tables are already falling, water refugees are likely to become commonplace.

Whereas the U.S. Dust Bowl displaced 3 million people, the advancing desert in China's Dust Bowl provinces could displace tens of millions.

While desert expansion and water shortages are now displacing millions of people, rising seas promise to displace far greater numbers in the future, given the concentration of the world's population in low-lying coastal cities and rice-growing river deltas. The numbers could eventually reach the hundreds of millions, offering yet another powerful reason for stabilizing both climate and population.
According to Brown, "During this century we must deal with the effects of trends—rapid population growth, advancing deserts, and rising seas—that we set in motion during the last century." He suggests that our choice is a simple one: "reverse these trends or risk being overwhelmed by them."

With thanks to Hermann Josef Hack for the artwork.


  1. Having 15 people show up instead of 3 shouldn't be cause for celebration. I was on parliment hill where they claim some 3,000 people showed up and they say that is the largest climate change demonstration in our country's history. To me, it is pathetic that they can make this claim given the monumental challenge that we face. To have politicians bite the bullet and aim for 0 emissions or 350 ppm or even 450 ppm, we would need at least 50-100 thousand people at a protest on parliment hill. These would have to be voters from every party, not just the Greens and a few NDPers.
    I was at a march in Montreal in 2005 for COP11 meetings a few years back that had some 40,000 people.

  2. Hi Remi,
    Thanks for writing. Actually, in my small community of about 1,800 this time of year, 15 is a big turnout. We've had concerts here with smaller audiences, and my husband and I have put on environmental events to which no one came.

    Plus it was probably our last beautiful day of autumn (it's been raining ever since). No, I was very happy with that turnout for a learn-in and lament ... (it wasn't an outdoor rally or "event"). The people who attended weren't all "choir" (as in, preaching to), and some real learning, sharing and visioning happened.

    However, knowing that a federal (Conservative) member of parliament once told a friend of mine that it would take 100,000 people on Parliament Hill to spur them to action on climate change means that a few thousand there meant nothing. That's sad, and I agree with you wholeheartedly on that one. Despite all the efforts of the organizers — and the attendance of several of my friends who live in Ontario — we sent the wrong message.

    Perhaps the majority of Canadians don't mind kissing the future goodbye.

    I remember the COP 11 meetings well. I especially remember that the NDP (our longstanding leftish-wing political party, for those from outside Canada) brought down the Canadian government on the first day of the talks. We have had the ta-sands-touting ultra right-wing Conservatives in power ever since, and I, for one, have never forgiven the NDP.

  3. I guess your 15 participants was twice the amount per capita then we got in Ottawa. It's good to hear that some attendees were there to learn.
    It doesn't surprise me that it would take 100,000 people in an Ottawa demonstration to spur the government into action. I don't think any level of demonstration would make them stop the tar sands.
    I have been reading The Long Descent. It's quite interesting in its take on why politicians will never be the ones to lead the charge.


I would appreciate hearing your thoughts or questions on this post or anything else you've read here. What is your take on courage and compassion being an important part of the solution to the climate change emergency?