Environmental Refugees: The Human Impact of Global Climate Change – by Sir Crispin Tickell

As a long-standing environmentalist and student of climatology, Tickell is the author of Climatic Change and World Affairs (1977 and 1985), and has written and lectured widely on the social impact of global climate change.

Sir Crispin Tickell has been the British permanent representative to the United Nations since 1987. He joined the British Diplomatic Service in 1954, and has had a widely varied diplomatic career. He was ambassador to Mexico from 1981 to 1983, a deputy under secretary of state for economic affairs in 1984, and in charge of the British overseas aid programme from 1984 to 1987.

As a long-standing environmentalist and student of climatology, Tickell is the author of Climatic Change and World Affairs (1977 and 1985), and has written and lectured widely on the social impact of global climate change.

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I once attended an occasion at the Royal Institution at which the members, dressed in black tailcoats and starched white shirts with bow ties, awaited the arrival of the distinguished archaeologist Louis Leakey. As the clock struck nine piercing notes, Professor Leakey, dressed in an open- necked bush shirt, marched from doors behind the stage, mounted to the podium, and gazed at the eminent gathering before him. “Animals.” he said, let none of you forget that you are animals.

It was a useful reminder. We have a long history, going back thousands of years, of thinking otherwise. Prom the earliest recorded days, people have placed themselves apart from and superior to other living things. Now we may be less sure of the frontier line. Beavers reconstruct the environment. Even birds shape and use tools. Yet we still congratulate ourselves on our souls, we still talk about conquering nature. A better way of putting it would be to say that we have been a very successful species within nature. We can adapt to the jungle, the desert, or the ice cap; we have changed the land surface to suit our needs; we have dealt with the worst diseases and raised average life expectancy; we have changed the genetic inheritance of plants and other animals for our food requirements; and we face no serious challenge from any other animal species. In short, as supreme predators we have enjoyed the luxurious opportunities of a species in rapid expansion.

That, of course, is the problem. I want to talk—as one animal to others at least as distinguished as those addressed by Professor Leakey—about an aspect of the predicament we have created for ourselves. The predicament is simply stated. First, like all successful species we have multiplied our numbers enormously; and second, we have affected greatly the environment of which we are a part. The two are now coming together as they so often do.

For biologists, a familiar experiment is that of the Petri dish. Petri dishes are round plates with transparent food on them disposed to allow an investigator to see colonies of microbes with the naked eye. From small beginnings the microbes multiply at an accelerating rate. They are at their most prolific as they reach the edge of the dish. Then the food runs out, the microbes die in their multibillions, and extinction takes place.

Now we are not microbes, and we do not live on Petri dishes. But if the microbes could reflect on their predicament, they would see the politics of their situation as a desperate rush for survival at the expense of all who stood in their way. There would be no time to talk about the nice balance between resources and population. For us, there is still a chance. The threat to our ways of life is visible, but more so in some places than in others. It is also clearer in abstract than in personal terms. My concern is how probable changes to the environment, particularly in global climate, could affect millions of our fellow human beings: how they live, where they live, whether they live. We face the specter of major human displacements.

It is scarcely necessary to speak of the multiplication of human numbers. In 1930 there were around 2 billion people in the world, and by 1975 that figure had doubled. Short of a catastrophe, there will be well over 6 billion people by the end of the century. Their distribution will not correspond to the distribution of the Earth’s resources. Furthermore, the number of their accompanying domestic plants and animals represents a population explosion of its own. If some discriminating bug were to kill us all off tomorrow, the present forms of many of the plant and animal species we have so carefully selected would soon follow.

The changes we have made to the environment are sometimes too familiar to be recognized. But a visitor from 10,000 years ago would find a world transformed. The clearing of forests for agriculture, fuel, construction, and weapons of w ar (remember the wooden ships of Greece, Italy, and England); the cultivation and sometimes irrigation of vast areas of land; the spread of scrub and desert; and the building of towns and cities drawing their sustenance from all around them (more than 1 percent of the United States is now under concrete) have together changed the face of the Earth.

In the last 200 years change has been still more drastic under the impact of industrialization. That impact has been sharply different in different areas. In countries we label industrial, change grew out of previous history and was sustained by an agricultural revolution that increased food productivity greatly. The physical environment of these countries was resilient, with big natural resources including regular rainfall. The result was that although cities spread and the environment was much altered, little irremediable damage was done.

The same cannot be said for the rest of the world in all its variety. Change has not grown naturally out of the past: in many cases there was no preceding agricultural revolution to sustain an industrial society. Time was telescoped everywhere. Environment and resources were likewise different, with vulnerable and delicate ecosystems in forest and desert, poor leached soil easily destroyed, unreliable patterns of rainfall, all made worse by rapidly growing populations and often well-meaning misapplication of methods and technology useful elsewhere.

More recently we have become aware of what could be the trigger for the greatest changes of all: those in the chemistry of the air that have led to acid deposition in areas downwind of industry, to holes in the friendly shield of ozone that makes life possible, and to the prospect of global climate change.

Until now climate has usually been regarded, certainly by economists, as one of the invariable factors for all practical purposes affecting human society. In fact, climate has never been invariable. It is in constant change, but usually within well-behaved limits. Substantial change has rarely been identifiable within a human timescale. But people have of course felt and remarked on it.

Those living on the margins of the four geographical zones of ice, temperate areas, desert, and tropics have long been sensitive to small changes. When the little ice age began in the fourteenth century, those growing wheat in Greenland or Iceland lost their livelihood; when the warming of the present century began, mountain glaciers shrank and new land was opened for cultivation.

But the idea that mankind could affect the climate is relatively new. Somehow the littleness of man and the vastness of the sky made it an improbable proposition, and to many it still is. But evidence the other way is strong, and it is accumulating fast. The relationship between land use and climate, and in particular between trees and rainfall, has been demonstrated. More recently we have established—it is a fact and not a hypothesis—the relationship between the quantity of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and average global temperatures. This is not the occasion for a disquisition on the greenhouse effect or, perhaps more accurately stated, the global heat trap. Without such a trap, life as we know it on the Earth’s surface would be impossible. The Earth would be like Mars, from which too much heat has escaped, or Venus, within which too much heat is retained. We have become used to the present broad equilibrium of heat entry and heat loss, and our pattern of existence relies on it. But by increasing the volume of certain trace gases in the atmosphere, we are likely to move the limits of the equilibrium in ways that cannot so far be determined.

We know that levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide and methane are increasing each year. The other principal greenhouse gases are chloro-fluorocarbons, which were unknown before the 1950s. and nitrogen oxides.

Most of the increased carbon dioxide comes from consumption of fossil fuels, and the rest from the burning of forests; methane comes from land clearance, natural-gas release, fields such as rice paddies, biomass burning, and ruminants; the chlorofluorocarbons come from industry (refrigerants, aerosols); and most of the nitrogen oxides comes from land conversion, fertilizers, and fossil-fuel consumption.

The effects, now and in the future, of the increase in these gases remain a matter of dispute; but the conventional—and, I add, conservative—wisdom, with some heretics on each flank, is that global mean temperature will rise by between 1° and 2°C by 2030, and by more than another 0.5°C by 2050. It is unlikely to rise by less. It could rise by much more. Already the mean temperature of the Earth has risen by 0.5°C over the last hundred years.

This range of increases may seem small. But so was the drop in global mean temperature of around 4°C which prevailed during the last ice age. Moreover, the use of an average figure conceals the drastic changes that would take place at certain latitudes. Whereas the change around the equator might be very small, in temperate areas it would be substantial and at the poles could be a 7° to 10°C increase. Efforts have been made to estimate the likely effects for particular latitudes and regions. But models so far are inadequate, and we have no more than general ideas to work with. If we take into account what happened in previous periods of warming, there would be a shift of temperate conditions northward in the Northern Hemisphere and southward in the Southern Hemisphere; there would be a more lively heat exchange between the equator and the poles, creating greater instability between them with more storms, droughts, and deluges; and there would be a rise in mean sea levels from a combination of thermal expansion and melting ice.

As the oceans represent an element of inertia in the global thermostat, the rise in sea levels would probably take longer than the rise in atmospheric global temperatures. At present the best guess is a rise of between 24 and 34 centimeters in the next sixty years, but it could be less or more. The current rate of rise is around 2.4 millimeters a year.

Changes of this kind have been known before in the Earth’s history. Living things made the necessary accommodations with some loss of plant and animal species. For us the problem is less change itself than its speed. Change is at present taking place at a rate some ten times faster than the average over the past 10,000 years, and at a rate many times faster than that since the last ice age. Indeed the rate of change could be so fast it could cause disruption to ecosystems comparable to those which caused major extinctions of species in the past. A change in rainfall patterns of only 300 to 500 kilometers north or south would lead to a different covering of the Earth. Some plant species might he able to move and adapt themselves to new soils, hut other, longer-lived species such as trees might he unable. Animals—from insects to fish to elephants—would face major problems of adjustment. For all there would he many losses and some gains, and the pace of evolution might quicken to fill the gaps. The likely rise in sea levels would flood many existing coastal areas, change existing river systems and aquifers, and possibly alter the pattern of ocean currents and the distribution of marine resources.

No animal would be more affected than we. During previous periods of warming or cooling, our species was able to respond with its feet. The last period of cooling showed a human invasion of the Americas and Australia, over the land bridges that emerged when sea levels fell. The last period of warming showed a human invasion into the areas liberated from the ice: a good example is the United Kingdom itself. But in a new and more drastic period of warming, there would be few places for people to go to. Other people are there already. We have left ourselves no room to maneuver. Warming might release land for settlement in what is now Arctic tundra, but there is no imaginable way in which populations living elsewhere in areas of sudden environmental stress could pick up their bags and move. The barriers are up, and for good reasons or bad, most people already find it harder than ever to leave their place of birth.

Yet already the number of the world s refugees is steadily increasing. Accordingly to a present definition, a refugee is one who, “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” There were fewer than 5 million refugees in 1978 and almost 14 million in 1988. Most of them were fleeing from war, persecution, and the other consequences of political breakdown. In camps or on the move were almost 6 million Afghans, almost 2.5 million Palestinians, over 1 million Mozambicans, over 1 million Ethiopians, and half a million Iraqis. Less in number, but just as big in terms of local impact, were 400,000 Somalis, 400,000 Angolans, 335,000 Cambodians, 300,000 Sudanese, and 150,000 Central Americans. These figures do not include the millions of undocumented aliens, asylum seekers, and those simply looking for a better way of life—so called economic migrants—in the United States, Europe, and the Middle East. Nor do they include those displaced within and outside their own countries by famine, drought, flooding, or other environmental hazards (a number estimated at well over 10 million people).

It requires a leap of the imagination to work out the numbers that would be on the move in the event of global warming on present estimates. A heavy concentration of people is situated at present in low-lying coastal areas or along the world’s great river systems. Nearly one-third of humanity lives within 60 kilometers of a coastline. A rise in mean sea level of only 25 centimeters would have substantial effects. The industrial countries might he able to construct new sea defenses to protect vulnerable areas, but even they would have difficulty in coping with high tides and storm surges of a kind that might be more common.

For most poor countries such defenses would be out of the question. Many of those living and working in, for example, the delta areas of the Nile, the Ganges, and the Yangtse would be forced out of their homes and livelihood. Some islands, such as the Maldives in the Indian Ocean, and Kiribati, Tuvalu, and the Marshall Islands in the Pacific, would soon become uninhabitable. Bangladesh, with its population of more than 100 million, and Egypt, with its population of around 60 million, would be particularly affected. A further rise in sea levels up to half a meter and beyond would have more drastic results. The world would look a different place.

For those living well above sea level, global warming would have other disruptive effects with differences according to latitude. In broad terms, the tropics would be least affected: but those dependent on such annual events as the monsoon or summer rains might find new irregularities in the weather system. Recent droughts in the Sahel have illustrated the vulnerability of people living in or on the fringes of arid zones, and current population levels would almost certainly prove unsustainable. Countries in which economic resources, including fresh water, are already strained by increasing human population would suffer most.

The present temperate areas, where most of the world’s industry and agricultural production now lie, would not escape. The food surpluses that at present act as a buffer stock to cope with deficits elsewhere could disappear quickly. The climatic variation would probably be greater in these countries than toward the equator, and such areas as the northern Mediterranean, the American Midwest, and the southern parts of the Soviet Union would be particularly vulnerable. But there might eventually be compensation in opening up land farther north, and ways of mitigating change through application of technology might be found.

What, then, could be the scale of the human problem thirty, forty, or fifty years from now? Even allowing for piecemeal, gradual responses year by year to the imperatives of change, it would be very large. So long as the problem remains unsolved in the short term, so it steadily accumulates in the long term. Plucking a figure from the air, if only 1 percent (a very low estimate) of a future world population of 6 billion were affected, that would still mean some 60 million migrants or environmental refugees; and 5 percent (again a low estimate) would produce 300 million. Even 60 million would represent a problem of a magnitude no one has ever had to face.

Nor is it all. Refugees create their own problems. Under its present mandate the United Nations High Commission for Refugees provides protection and assistance for refugees and does likewise for others when mandated by the UN General Assembly. In some cases refugees can return to their country of origin. In others they can be resettled. But economic migrants or environmental refugees fall into another category whether they stay in their own country or cross into another.

At present they are a phenomenon mostly of poor countries. Richer ones try to keep them out. Shelter, food, and medical care are hard to find. There is little prospect of return. They often come from another environment (for example, highland Ethiopians are forced down to the plains), and they bring with them alien customs, alien religious practices, alien eating habits, alien agricultural methods, and—not least—diseases with susceptibility to local pathogens to which they have built no resistance. .Most have great difficulty in adjusting themselves to new circumstances. Like normal refugees, they depend on charity. Resettlement is never easy, and full assimilation is rare. In any numbers they tend to spread their poverty around them and to compound the problem from which they first tried to escape. In a warming world, refugees would constitute only one of the myriad animal species trying to cope with the disruption of a way of life; and as with other creatures, death rates among them inevitably would be high.

This bleak picture brings out a dilemma well expressed by the prominent scientist A. V. Hill in 1952. He then wrote in Nature magazine:

Some might [take] the purely biological view that if men will breed like rabbits they must be allowed to die like rabbits. . . . Most people will say no. But suppose it were certain now that the pressure of increasing population, uncontrolled by disease, would lead not only to widespread exhaustion of the soil and of other capital resources but also to continuing and increasing international tension and disorder, making it hard for civilization to continue: would the majority of humane and reasonable people then change their minds? If ethical principles deny our right to do evil in order that good may come, are we justified in doing good when the foreseeable consequence is evil?

Perhaps no one will wish to answer that question, but it still needs to be asked. Our instincts of compassion may move us one way, and our sense of self-preservation and preservation of our families, in another, it must be our aim to recognize but avoid that painful dilemma.

In virtually all countries the growing numbers of refugees would cast a dark and lengthening shadow. Within a country they would represent a dangerous factor in the certain and growing difficulties of social and economic management. We are familiar with the strains that famine, drought, flooding, and other disasters can bring to governments. Some can cope, some evidently cannot. But few outside the industrial world have the structure or resources to manage a continuing crisis. Secondary effects of disorder, terrorism, civil war, economic breakdown, or even bankruptcy could become endemic. We are all too familiar with them already. Witness the lingering agony of Lebanon, or the slow slide of Peru into chaos. In such circumstances the care and management, let alone resettlement, of local refugees would be a challenge many governments could not hope to meet.

Among countries and regions there would be still larger difficulties. To a greater or lesser extent all would be suffering and undergoing adjustment. Thus willingness to help others would be limited, the more so if it threatened to put at risk the adjustment process at home. Some of that process might lie in setting land aside for fallow or reforestation. There are already little patches in Africa and India protected for this purpose—oases of green in brown landscapes—but the condition of success is the continued absence of man and his domestic animals. When productive land and fresh water are precious, no one welcomes intruders. There are no more ancient cause of conflict between peoples than land and water. In time of trouble the pressure of recognizable aliens is liable to ignite popular resentment with the speed of a brushfire; we have seen recent violent incidents of this kind in Mauritania and Senegal.

In industrial countries, many feel—rightly or wrongly—that there is an absolute limit to the number of people from other countries and cultures who can be absorbed without damaging social cohesion and national identity. With substantial unemployment, primary immigration into Western Europe and the United States has diminished to a trickle over the last fifteen years, and resistance to immigration has become popular politics. Any aggravation of the refugee problem would only strengthen such resistance.

But even if some people and governments wished to seal themselves off from the rest of the world, they could not do so. In no country or city can the rich fortify themselves for long against the poor. All form part of an increasingly interdependent economy, land frontiers can always he penetrated. The northward movement of Mexicans and other Latin Americans across the long southern frontier of the United States has so far proved irresistible. Every year parts of the United States develop more Hispanic characteristics. Nor are short sea crossings a real harrier. Desperation could push Africans into Europe, Chinese into the relatively empty parts of the Soviet Union, and Indonesians into northern Australia. Sheer numbers could swamp most efforts at control.

We forget, at our peril, that civilization is a fragile thing. The first cities appeared only about 5,000 years ago and until recently were so unhealthy their populations required constant replenishment from the surrounding countryside.

As John Reader recently wrote in Man on Earth:

In the brief space of time that civilization has been a feature of human existence, it has not demonstrated any tendency to produce a well- regulated steady state w hereby people are well fed and secure, generation after generation. Civilization is distinguished more by its erratic cycles. . . . Time and again it has risen dramatically from the field of human endeavour, then collapsed and fallen. Human ingenuity drives the process. Human inability to impose adequate restraint brings it down. Inventions provide the initial impetus, intellect supplies methods of application and solutions to problems that arise as the system swells and grows, but in every instance so far, the uncontrolled growth of civilization has ultimately thrown up more problems than human intellect can solve.

The key phrase here is inability to impose adequate restraint.” For we are not helpless before this problem. It is one we have created for ourselves. Industrial society is a highly artificial construct with an internal logic not unlike one of its own machines. It rests on the use of a particular kind of energy stored since the early history of the Earth—and has led to a transformation of the land and generated a vast increase in our species, thereby destroying many others. The influence of industrial society has spread everywhere, and its success has created boundless expectations. Now we are getting the bill.

We may not be able to meet it. But we can do a lot if we have a mind to. There is not much time. It is too late to think of prevention. The chemistry of the atmosphere has already changed, and even if we could cut back manmade emissions of greenhouse gases immediately, the effects would be with us for hundreds of years. But we can certainly mitigate the problem.

This is not the occasion to set out a program of international action. But such a program would include the elaboration of new energy policies designed to conserve energy (good examples range from better insulation materials to new miracle” light bulbs); reduce consumption of fossil fuels, especially coal and oil; develop alternative sources, from nuclear to solar; and reduce burning of fuelwood in poor countries. It would include a reorientation of industrial policy to avoid use of chlorofluorocarbons and curtail noxious emissions. And it would include changes in land use to promote reforestation and wood harvesting; new methods of agriculture, including agroforestry; and the management of wildernesses, deserts, and human landfills through application of old and new techniques, including biotechnology.

Apart from mitigating effects, we must also accept the need to adapt. With greater knowledge of what is likely to happen, we can prepare ourselves for change. This may require small alterations as well as big ones: from changes in diet (certain plants will do better than others in a carbon dioxide—rich world) to major public investment in energy, desalinization to obtain fresh water, and protection against rising sea levels. To cope with the speed of likely change, nature may well need a helping hand; for example, in transferring trees from one area to another. We need to do more through a variety of methods to curb human population increase, to inculcate more understanding of the environment and other living creatures within it, and to support worldwide development only on a basis sustainable over generations. This means shifting emphasis from simple exploitation of resources to better use of them, and more respect for the people involved. To mention but one instance: In about forty projects approved for financing by the World Bank in agriculture and hydroelectricity between 1979 and 1985, provision was made for the relocation, voluntary or not, of over 600,000 people in twenty-seven countries. Was this really necessary or justified?

All efforts to cope with these problems must be as global as the problems themselves. But very little can be done without a wider understanding and measure of consensus. Perhaps the first successful step was the Stockholm Conference on the Environment held in 1972. In the following years there were many cries of alarm—most went unheeded. Institutions and conferences multiplied but without much effect. With the publication of the report of the Brundtland Commission on Environment and Development in 1986, there has been a sea change in public attitudes. The most practical results so far have been the Montreal Protocol of 1987, a product of the Vienna Convention of 1985, to limit production and use of chlorofluorocarbons. Greenhouse effect” has become a household phrase, and the idea, if not the implications, is better understood. There was even a debate in the United Nations on the subject in autumn 1988, when I made my first speech on that subject to the General Assembly. It was followed by a useful and practical resolution.

It fell to me in New York on May 8, following the seminar held by the British Prime Minister in London on April 26, to set out the main elements in the British government’s approach to the international aspects of the global warming problem. In a few words, these elements are the formation of an umbrella convention to set out general principles with detailed protocols on specific aspects as they arise; the strengthening and development of existing UN institutions, including the United Nations Environment Programme, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (a body required to set out the science of the problem), and even possibly the Security Council under Article 34 of the UN Charter; and acceptance of the fact that global warming has arisen essentially from the process of industrialization. It follows that industrial countries must give leadership and help to the rest of the world in managing the three linked problems of energy, industrial change, and land use. I wish it could be said that international action on these lines could provide solutions to the various problems, including the dilemma of environmental refugees. But I do not believe that it could, even if it were able to mitigate such problems. So far, few have even considered the refugee aspect—except perhaps in a few chilling throwaway lines.

There is no accepted definition of an economic migrant or an environmental refugee. Of course, these refugees have been with us for a long time even if they have not always been labeled as such. The shantytowns of poor countries are full of them. The United States had many of its own after drought in the Midwest in the 1930s.

I do not have magic solutions to suggest for still greater problems that may lie ahead. In the long run, there is no alternative but restoring equilibrium between resources and population, and achieving flexibility through optimum rather than maximum population density. It has already been done in one or two places. Eventually, we are all dead, including countless refugees. It is today that matters. The first step to wisdom is to recognize the problem. The next is to do all possible to prepare for it. As the movement of refugees across frontiers would be extremely unwelcome, and could not be resisted even by force, governments must work to manage the problems themselves. In doing so they would need, and have a right to, help from the international community, particularly from those in it who have contributed most to the creation of global climate change. Action to accommodate refugees across frontiers would be immensely more difficult, and without international agreement could risk creating tension, disorder, and conflict on a major scale.

Science is full of surprises. Things do not necessarily change in linear or step-by-step fashion. A measure of unpredictability and chaos is endemic. The beating of a butterfly’s wings in Manhattan may contribute to an eventual deluge on the other side of the Atlantic. Hut even if we allow for surprises and chaos, it appears in 1990 that the world is warming up at a rate unknown in historical times, and that with the present increase and distribution of the world’s population, we face disruption of existing society with distressing consequences for millions of displaced human beings. As animals, we are both tough and adaptable. But our toughness and adaptability might, for many, be tested beyond endurance. We have grow n, lived, and flourished as elements in specific natural surroundings. Those surroundings or ecosystems could be so damaged that they may fall apart, as they often have in Karth’s history, to be replaced by different ones. We must look to our present companions in life in their marvelous complexity, as well to ourselves, if we and they are to survive and prosper. We want to avoid A. V. Hill’s cruel dilemma. We want to avoid the politics of the Petri dish. Whether we can I do not know. We should at least try.

Source: Greenhouse glasnost. The crisis of global warming. Essays, 1990
Essays composed on the occasion of Greenhouse/Glasnost: the Sundance Symposium on Global Climate Change, held Aug. 1989 in Sundance, Utah, sponsored by the Institute for Resource Management and the Soviet Academy of Sciences


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