March 31, 2006

Going, going ...

Most of us don't have to worry a lot about global warming on an immediate level. Sitting here in my home in Portland, for example, this magpie doesn't have to fear that rising sea levels will have the Pacific knocking at my door. Sea levels would have to rise 60 meters [200 feet] for that to happen, and even the most pessimistic predictions I've seen only expect a rise of 7 meters [22 feet] or so above the current level.

But if I were living in the island nation of Tuvalu, things would be very different.

Look quick before Tuvalu is gone

Aerial view of Funafut Island, Tuvalu.
Notice any mountains?

Tuvalu is a small country of about 11,000 people, located about halfway between Australia and Hawaii. The highest point in the country is just 5 meters [16 feet] above see level, and many places are only one meter [about a yard] above the sea. Given this, many predictions put Tuvalu under water some time after mid-century. Even now, islanders have noticed that high tides are higher and beaches smaller, and that water is coming up through the soil in many places.

Alexandra Berzon has written a sobering article about how global warming is already affecting the people of Tuvalu, and what they are doing to avert — or just cope with — the likely disappearance of their homeland within the lifetime of many now alive.

Scientists predict that climate change will have a disproportionate impact on underdeveloped nations. Activists are pushing for recognition of "environmental" or "climate" refugees in the hopes that industrialized nations will better understand the side effects of climate change if a whole new class of "refugees" come knocking on their doors. In a 2003 Guardian article, the New Economics Foundation's Andrew Simms wrote, "Creating new legal obligations to accept environmental refugees would help ensure that industrialized countries accept the consequences of their choices. In certain circumstances, the suggestion that the solution must lie at the national level could be absurd -- the national level may be under water." And he's not alone in his thinking: In a letter to Nature magazine last year, the Council for Responsible Genetics' Sujatha Byravan and Tellus Institute fellow Sudhir Chella Rajan proposed that countries responsible for climate change take exiles in proportion to the CO2 emissions they release. Under that plan, the United States, which last century produced around 30 percent of global carbon emissions, would house around 30 percent of the displaced. That translates into a quarter to three-quarters of a million additional refugees a year.

This issue is already being played out on a small scale in the halls of government in Australia and New Zealand. Ministers there are considering whether to grant Tuvaluans and other threatened islanders special immigration privileges because of their plight. Helen Clark, New Zealand's liberal Labor Party prime minister, is reported to have unofficially promised Tuvalu's leaders that New Zealand will be a refuge for all Tuvaluans in the event of an environmental crisis. But some conservatives, like New Zealand First M.P. Pita Paraone, say other nations should share the burden: "Tuvaluans need to be aware that there are other countries in the Pacific basin that can accommodate them just as easily as we can."

In Australia, the liberal-opposition Labor Party recently released a climate-change plan saying Australia should start preparing to accept thousands of islanders -- including those from Tuvalu -- into the country when their homes become uninhabitable because of climate change. And the country's Green Party recently introduced a motion in Parliament that would have officially recognized this class of migrants. But, according to the Australian newspaper the Mercury, Environment Minister Ian Campbell dismissed those suggestions: "To start planning an evacuation of the Pacific is really a ludicrous policy. It's absurd," he said. "The Australian government's policy is to work closely with the Pacific island nations." But that's assuming, of course, that these Pacific island nations continue to exist.

As Berzon points out, it's not only island states like Tuvalu that have to worry about relatively small rises in sea level. Low-lying areas of mainland nations will be affected, too. Bangladesh, the Netherlands, and the US state of Florida immediately come to mind.

You can read the rest of Berzon's Tuvalu article here, at Salon.

[Paid sub or ad view req'd]

Posted by Magpie at March 31, 2006 12:27 PM | Environment | Technorati links |

Don't be _too_ confident. Total icecap melting would raise the sea level by about 80 meters, and I doubt we understand the workings of Earth's climate well enough to rule that out entirely.

Posted by: felice at April 2, 2006 05:36 PM