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Ecology, Climate Migrants, and Social Justice
The warming climate is making dry places drier and wet places wetter. As massive amounts of sea ice melt and the oceans rise, low-lying coastal land–including cities–will be inundated. Droughts last longer and affect larger areas of land. Enormous swaths of forest have become tinderboxes fueling huge, aggressive wildfires in the American West, Canada, Siberia, and Australia. Arid regions such as the American Southwest and large parts of Australia, in the best of times able to support only small numbers of plants and animals, will become unlivable. Whole ecological systems worldwide will change.
As their homes are overtaken by ocean waters, floods, fire, or drought, all living things (including humans) in these ecosystems will have to adapt their homes, retreat, or perish.
Retreat Is Already Here
Retreat is not an eons-in-the-future event. Retreating from changing ecosystems that can no longer sustain the lives that depend upon them is already happening.
The question is not if it will happen: the question is how are we going to handle it when it does happen. Are we going to think decades into the future and plan now for how to manage a just and orderly change, or are we going to ignore it?
All around the world, coastal communities and even inland cities on rivers affected by sea-level changes, such as Montreal and Chicago, are beginning to see the effects of rising water.
Over 40 million people depend upon the Colorado River for drinking water, farmland irrigation, and hydropower. Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming and parts of Mexico all draw water – lots of it – from that one river, and it is now seriously drying up. For millennia, it drained into the Gulf of California: so much water is being sucked out of it that it now dries up and disappears miles from the gulf. The river is overused and aquifers are being depleted, yet people are still moving into those areas and huge commercial farms are still expanding. What is going to happen when the river can no longer provide enough water to satisfy the needs of the people and farms? What about the plants and animals that depend upon the river’s water? It is an ecosystem that is changing before our eyes, alarming scientists, city, state, and regional governments, and terrifying indigenous people who have lived in those areas for thousands of years.
Ex-Cities (and Countries)
Which populations will need to re-locate? Which cities will become “ex-cities” (New York, San Diego, and New Orleans are already on the lists)? How are societies going to deal with people who don’t have the means to retreat? Or with people and even whole towns that refuse to move (should society pay for the emergency services and rebuilding when they are overtaken by the inevitable fire or flood)? Where are these climate migrants going to go to?
The Pacific island nation of Kiribati is projected to be underwater – gone – within the lifetime of people now living there. The island’s government, wisely, has already purchased enough land in Fiji for their entire population and Australia is providing job training so the climate migrants from Kiribati will not be economically distressed.
Jakarta, Indonesia, has sunk over 8 feet in the last decade and the sea level there has risen by 10 feet in the last 30 years. Over half of New Orleans is at or below sea level, as is much of the Netherlands.
Engineers throughout the world are already developing high-tech methods to stop the rising seawater from inundating coastal communities and cities. Barriers, break-walls, dikes, and pump systems can only do so much, though. Other cities are becoming “sponge cities”, finding ways to collect and reuse storm surges. Dutch cities are building parking garages, parks, and plazas to become temporary storage ponds. Cities in India are collecting monsoon water to irrigate farmland in dry seasons, and Chinese cities are required to be able to reuse or absorb most of their storm water.
How long will these mitigation strategies work? What is the economic cost of maintaining them? Doesn’t it make sense to start moving populations away from vulnerable areas? Managed retreat is most often talked about for rising sea level issues, but areas where drought, flood, or fire are already problems also need to start planning ahead.
One can only imagine the social justice, food security, water security, and economic equality issues that will arise with an unplanned exodus from a collapsing ecosystem.