The climate change we are currently experiencing is a direct result of the way people have lived, especially in the last 200 years, and people are just one of its many victims.
• In November 2005 the Papua New Guinean government decided to abandon their 30 year battle to stop the Pacific destroying homes on the Cataret Atolls. In the following 2 years, the Cataret people officially became the first to be evacuated because of climate change.
• According to the International Red Cross report Preparedness for Climate Change (2003), over the decade prior to their report (1993-2003) weather-related disasters accounted for 90% of all reported natural disasters and 86% of all deaths from natural disasters. Subsequent to the publication of this report, we experienced hurricanes Katrina (2005) and Ike (2008), the Boxing Day Tsunami (2004) and the Pakistan earthquake (2005), which would have pushed the percentages even higher.
• In June last year the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, warned that climate change was forcing growing numbers of people in the developing world to flee their homes.
• The UNHCR 2007 Global Trends Report (http://www.unhcr.org/statistics/STATISTICS/4852366f2.pdf) states that the number of people under the UNHCR's responsibility had risen steeply for the second year running, from 9.9 to 11.4 million.
• According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre the number of people displaced internally by conflict increased from 24.4 to 26 million people. As climate change degrades already stressed environments, conflict for resources, which is at the root of the conflict in Darfur among others, (http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200704/darfur-climate/2) are likely to increase.
In a Guardian poll (http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/apr/14/global-warming-target-2c) sent to climate scientists who met in Copenhagen ahead of the G20 summit (see previous post, Saturday 21 March 2009) 86% of respondents said that they do not believe that we will be able to keep mean global temperature rise to 2 degrees centigrade; the most likely outcome is a temperature rise of 5-6 degrees centigrade. We are likely to see this rise by 2100, and some delegates believe it will happen by 2050. But what does this mean in real terms? Climate modelling predicts dire consequences if the global mean temperature rises by 4 degrees centigrade: a world where much presently inhabited land becomes uninhabitable due to extreme weather conditions, including most of the USA and all of Africa and India. At the same time, the habitable areas will be struggling to cope with local crises caused by far more severe weather events than they have previously experienced. A very good map from New Scientist illustrating this can be seen here (http://www.newscientist.com/articleimages/mg20126971.700/1-how-to-survive-the-coming-century.html).
If this model is accurate, then over the next few decades we can expect to see a massive increase in the number of refugees and displaced people, some as a direct result of global warming and others as a result of conflict for increasingly scarce resources.
We face the dual crises of peak oil and climate change at the same time as a global economic crisis. As we struggle to deal with food and water shortages, flooding, cyclones and refugees fleeing uninhabitable areas, how will our modern "liberal" societies deal with the challenge?
People facing adverse conditions tend to become more rigid in their views, in a bid to conserve increasingly scarce resources for their own community of like-minded individuals. In times when people feel their very survival is at stake, there is a stronger reaction against minor crime, against foreigners, and against anyone who challenges the status quo. It’s difficult to imagine people welcoming an influx of refugees into already over-burdened communities. We may see the rise of fascism and nationalism, martial law or entrenched gang rule/warlordism, depending on the extent of collapse in the individual area, with competition and perhaps war for increasingly scarce resources.
How will states deal with the refugee crisis? A state facing severe shortages of basic necessities and with a populace fearful of increased demands on local resources is likely to refuse entry to refugees. Vast amounts of precious and increasingly scarce resources may go into maintaining a standing army to protect the nation’s food security.
How will a starving nation act to secure food, water and energy? One absolutely terrifying possibility is the use of WMD in this scenario. Will the knowledge that their weapons may pollute the very resources they are trying to secure prevent them using those weapons? Probably not if they have the technology to clean the area afterwards, or if there’s the slightest hope that even polluted resources will keep them alive for just a little while longer. Truly desperate people have nothing to lose.
Human history holds many unpleasant examples of atrocities resulting from competition for even non-essential resources, and we must make sure that they are not repeated.