By 2060, around 1.4 bn people could be climate refugees, driven from low-lying coastal cities by sea level rise. By 2100, as the global population may have reached 11bn, there could be 2bn climate refugees.
To feed those 9 to 11 bn people expected in the second half of the century, farmers will have to grow as much food in 40 years as they have grown in the last 8,000 or so.
And in a world of accelerating sea level rise and climate change, in which farmland is being degraded and turned to desert, in which ever more land is set aside for carbon storage in the form of forest, and in which the strains of survival increase social divisions and social conflict, there is a new challenge: where will the 2bn climate refugees find new homes?
“We offer preliminary estimates of the lands unlikely to support new waves of climate refugees due to the residues of war, exhausted natural resources, declining net primary productivity, desertification, urban sprawl, land concentration, ‘paving the planet’ with roads, and greenhouse gas storage zones offsetting permafrost melt.”
“Although reclaiming land from oceans has been an important human project for millennia, it seems that oceans are now ‘reclaiming’ the land”
In any concerted attempts to contain climate change and limit global warming, climate scientists have to consider two big things. One is: how to drastically reduce fossil fuel use. The other is: how to use the land surface so that it takes up atmospheric carbon dioxide most efficiently.
They report in the journal Land Use Policy that they considered the implications of an ever faster rate of global sea level rise, as atmospheric temperatures warm and glaciers melt.
A study in Nature Climate Changehas just confirmed that the seas that in the last century were rising by on average 2.2mm a year are now rising by 3.3mm a year. “Although reclaiming land from oceans has been an important human project for millennia,” write Geisler and Currens in their study, “it seems that oceans are now ‘reclaiming’ the land.”
They start from the premise that global mean sea level rise will continue beyond 2100, and from the prediction that for every 1°C of climate warming, humans should expect an eventual 2.3 metre rise in sea levels.
In 2000, around 630 million people lived in low-lying coastal zones. By 2060, this number could have risen to 1.4bn. In the worst case scenario, the two scientists reason, almost all who dwell on the low-lying coasts will become climate refugees.
But the land that could be used to resettle those refugees is dwindling: between 1981 and 2003, around 35 million square kilometres of the planet became “degraded” and now make up almost one fourth of the world’s drylands.
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The two scientists then considered the barriers that climate refugees could face as they moved from the coasts. They defined what they called depletion zones – drylands, thawing permafrost and degraded land – that would be unlikely to support human existence. They identified what they call “win-lose” zones that because of urban sprawl, landfill needs and mushrooming roadways could help in some ways but not in others.
And they listed a set of what they call “no trespass zones”, from which refugees would be excluded either legally, or by violence, or by the risk of landmines or radioactive pollution.
They considered case studies, in China and in Florida in the US, where state officials have begun to plan for weather-induced population shifts.
“The pressure is on us to contain greenhouse gas emissions at present levels. It’s the best ‘future proofing’ against climate change, sea level rise and the catastrophic consequences likely to play out on coasts, as well as inland, in the future,” said Professor Geisler. – Climate News Network
Tim Radford, a founding editor of Climate News Network, worked for The Guardian for 32 years, for most of that time as science editor. He has been covering climate change since 1988.