Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search

Global warming may uproot millions

In the coming decades, the effects of global warming are likely to turn millions into refugees.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 21, 2007

GLOBAL WARMING IS likely to uproot millions of people, forcing them to leave their homes and in the process create large-scale political, economic, and military challenges.

Skip to next paragraph

In fact, say a growing number of experts, it's already beginning to happen.

"Human-induced climate and hydrologic change is likely to make many parts of the world uninhabitable, or at least uneconomic," writes Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University in New York, in the current online issue of Scientific American. As a result, he says, "Over the course of a few decades, if not sooner, hundreds of millions of people may be compelled to relocate because of environmental pressures."

Rising sea levels, stronger cyclones, the loss of soil moisture, more intense precipitation and flooding, droughts, melting glaciers, and changing snow-melt patterns are among the problems humanity will face, says Dr. Sachs. He warns:

"Combined with the human-induced depletion of groundwater sources by pumping, and the extensive pollution of rivers and lakes, mass migrations may be unavoidable."

The Christian Aid agency predicts that by 2050 global warming could displace as many as 1 billion people.

"All around the world, predictable patterns are going to result in very long-term and very immediate changes in the ability of people to earn their livelihoods," Michele Klein Solomon of the International Organization of Migration told Reuters. "It's pretty overwhelming to see what we might be facing in the next 50 years. And it's starting now."

Forced migration linked to climate change is part of a larger problem: refugees due to floods, famine, and other environmental conditions. In 2002, the United Nations estimated that there were about 24 million environmental refugees.

By 2010, about 50 million people will have migrated for environmental reasons, according to a 2005 study by Norman Myers, a professor of environmental science at Duke University in Durham, N.C., the Associated Press reported recently.

Thomas Downing, director of the Stockholm Environment Institute, told French news service AFP:

"There is going to be a lot of population movement linked to climate. ... Not all will be permanent refugees, but when you add climate to other forces that push people beyond the capacity to cope, the numbers will increase."

While concern is rising for low-lying island nations and sub-Saharan countries especially vulnerable to drought, some experts say climate-caused forced migration already has happened on a large scale in North America – in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina along the Gulf Coast.

Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute points out that the 2005 hurricane "forced a million people from the [city] of New Orleans and other small towns on the Mississippi and Louisiana coasts in the United States to move inland, either within states or neighboring states, such as Texas and Arkansas," according to an article in Sri Lanka's The Sunday Times.

But the largest numbers of those forced to move by climate change are likely to be in developing countries, especially those threatened by desertification, AFP reported this week after the United Nations' annual World Day to Combat Desertification on June 17.

"By 2025, Africa could lose as much as two-thirds of its arable land compared with 1990, and there could be declines of one-third in Asia and one-fifth in South America. Migration – from the Sahelian regions to the West African coast, from sub-Saharan Africa to Europe, from Mexico to the United States – will be an inevitable consequence as poor people are driven off their land."