Climate Change Could Threaten Up To 2 Billion Refugees By 2100

"It's coming at us faster than we thought."

Charles Geisler, a sociologist at Cornell University, spent much of his career researching where poor people go when rich corporations swoop in and buy the land out from under their feet.

But his focus began to shift in 2005, after observing how storm surges tainted farmland in Bangladesh with salt water. Later that year, Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, submerging communities once believed to be safe behind levees and dikes. As floodwaters inundated Vietnam’s Mekong Delta last year, Geisler’s new worldview came into sharp relief.

The rising sea, he surmised, is the one displacement force more powerful than greed.

Geisler began collating climate and demographic research, and came to a dire conclusion: By the year 2100, rising sea levels could force up to 2 billion people inland, creating a refugee crisis among one-fifth of the world’s population.

Worse yet, there won’t be many places for those migrants to go.

His findings appear in the July issue of the journal Land Use Policy.

“We have a pending crisis,” Geisler, a professor emeritus of development sociology at Cornell, told HuffPost. “This relocation and huge mass migration from the coastal zone, it’s going to take place in this century and the next century.”

In this August 2016 photo, a family on a raft approaches a boat in a flooded area of Jamalpur, Bangladesh.
In this August 2016 photo, a family on a raft approaches a boat in a flooded area of Jamalpur, Bangladesh.
Probal Rashid via Getty Images

To get the 2 billion figure, Geisler extrapolated from a 2015 study published in the journal PLOS One. That research predicted that by 2060, there would be some 1.4 billion people living in low-lying coastal regions at risk from sea level rise. Drawing from nearly a dozen other studies, Geisler and his co-author, the University of Kentucky climate researcher Ben Currens, modeled what he called a “rather extreme scenario.”

“The paper is the worst-case scenario,” Geisler said. “We looked for estimates in these various barriers to entry that were coming from the most draconian changes that could hit us from climate change and sea level rise.”

Geisler outlined three obstacles, or “barriers to entry,” to relocating people driven inland from their homes by rising seas. The first problem is that climate change isn’t just affecting coastal communities. Droughts and desertification could make areas safe from sea level rise uninhabitable at worst, and incapable of sustaining a large influx of migrants at best, Geisler said. The second issue is closely linked: If climate refugees flock to cities, increasing the urban sprawl into land once used to farm food, those metropoles could lose the ability to feed their inflated populations.

The third issue involves physical and legal barriers, meaning regions and municipalities might erect walls and post guards to prevent climate migrants from entering and settling down. Geisler dubbed this phenomenon the “no-trespass zone.”

Geisler warned that too much of the conversation around climate adaptation is focused on building sea walls, learning to live with regular flooding, and relocating communities inland, as has happened in Alaska. These limited ideas of “adaptation” could leave humanity woefully unprepared for a mass migration that Geisler said could dwarf the current refugee crisis in Europe, driven by war, poverty and drought-linked famine in regions south and east of the continent. At least 65.6 million people have fled their homes, and the United Nations estimates that 20 people are forcibly displaced every minute by war and persecution alone. Adding unfettered climate change to that mix threatens to yield human catastrophe on a scale that is difficult to describe without sounding bombastic.

The U.S. is particularly at risk. Millions of mainland Americans could be forced to flee inland, sending the populations of at least nine coastal states downward, according a University of Georgia study released in April. Texas alone could have to take in as many as 2.5 million internal migrants.

“The rising sea, he surmised, is the one displacement force more powerful than greed.”

“My hope is that this paper will reorient planners and policymakers who use the term ‘adaptation’ in a very narrow way,” Geisler said. “It’s used either to mean fortifying coastal structures to keep the sea off the land, or it’s used to refer to moving a population from a coastal zone in some organized way.”

There are better ways to prepare, he said. He pointed to four counties in South Florida that began sharing hydrological data and research on the rate of sea level rise, then drafted a joint evacuation plan. Dealing with the possible results of runaway climate change requires “transboundary” planning, he said.

“Climate change is going to be with us for a long time, and the coastal zone population is going to be overwhelming as it moves inland,” Geisler said. “How are we going to employ these people? Where are we going to house them? What energy sources are they going to need?”

“Bottom line: Far more people are going to be living on far less land, and land that is not as fertile and habitable and sustainable as the low-elevation coastal zone,” he added. “And it’s coming at us faster than we thought.”

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