The new emerging phenomenon of the eco refugee
Updated: Jun 8
By Staci-lee Sherwood
Climate change, climate denial, global warming, global cooling. Call it what you want the planet is shouting at us. We have ignored the warning signs for decades but we can no longer ignore what is happening right now. What started out decades ago as muted warnings of the future have turned into blaring bull horns. Politicians waste time spinning whatever tales fit their agenda but we are out of time if we don’t want to go down with the sinking ship called Earth.
The definition of refugee is someone fleeing a life threatening crisis. Most often associated with war torn countries the new emerging refuge is one fleeing a changing situation that makes life impossible. Life altering changes can be naturally occurring or manmade but the end result is the same, move or perish. The damage we have done to the planet’s natural resources can never be undone. Equally damaging is the lack of political will to pivot to more sustainable less damaging forms of energy or food production. None of this happened in a bubble nor did it happen overnight.
As far back as the 1970s and 80s we knew much of the damage we were doing. One can only blow up so many mountains or release so many chemicals into the air and water before those natural resources become damaged beyond repair. We humans also attribute the term refugee only to other humans but in reality any living creature that is forced to leave their native home in order to survive is a refugee.
If we count the true number of refugees we have created from lack of action it would be in the zillions. For non human species drastic climate change either means extinction or a necessity to quickly adapt and migrate. Adaptation is not realistic as it can take many generations to happen. For humans living at sea level they too will have to migrate inland or risk losing their home to coastal erosion and rising tides .
What the oceans tell us
We’ve all heard the news stories with dire warnings about a warming ocean, rising tides and ocean acidification but what exactly does that mean? For one thing ocean acidification is having a devastating effect on marine animals that rely on shells for protection. Studies have shown a thinning of shells making survival for those marine animals that depend on the protective home in jeopardy.
Rising tides have already caused erosion for many coastal dwellers. For many small island nations that means many residents will be moving inland. Without enough land to accommodate those moving inland for many islanders leaving altogether has become the only alternative. Property near water, once highly prized, can mean lower value and harder to sell as buyers must weigh the likelihood of being flooded.
The oceans are fast becoming depleted and not just from over fishing. Pollution, especially plastic, now covers huge areas of water sucking out all life and causing dead zones. This leaves less ocean for marine life to exist. One could say that marine life has nowhere to go and as the ocean dies it will take with it all marine life. These animal wouldn’t even get to be refugees they would not survive outside of saltwater.
Countless marine species are on the brink of extinction. If we don’t stop dumping into the ocean and releasing chemicals into the atmosphere we will effectively kill the oceans. That will also kill off our own species since the oceans provide more oxygen than rainforests. Speaking of rainforests we are logging and grazing them so heavily they will probably be all but barren sooner rather than later.
Sea Turtle sex ratios
Sea Turtles have been called living fossils because they haven’t changed much since first appearing more than 100 million years ago. Smaller in size than their ancestors they pretty much resemble what you would have seen if you were swimming in the ocean during the Cretaceous period. For millions of years nature provided for them and in return they helped balance the marine ecosystem. Because the females lay their eggs on land they are often thought of as one of the ‘indicator’ species, one whose behavior and population can foretell things to come.
The temperature of the sand determines the gender of the hatchlings. The phrase hot chicks and cool dudes is an easy way to remember the hotter the sand the more females hatch. For sea turtles they’re already experiencing devastating effects of a warming climate as many beaches are now so hot they only produce females. Once the sex ratio becomes so lopsided crashing a species is just around the corner. For sea turtles this spells extinction unless a global movement is started to use indoor temperature controlled hatcheries.
In 2018 a study was done showing that in Boca Raton, Florida nearly all hatchlings were female. This isn’t an isolated event this is happening worldwide as the oceans warm. That same year it was reported that in northern Australia only female Green Sea Turtles were born. Another study was conducted in 2014
A Green Sea Turtle hatching in South Florida
Not just Island nations
On the front lines of rising tides that have eroded many small countries they see what is coming on the horizon. It takes a lot to leave your country. Contrary to what many are told by the media most people do not want to leave their native land. Coastal erosion has always been a part of living on the water. Now there is no ebb and flow it’s become a permanent loss of beach and dune in a growing number of areas.
Coastal development has always been controversial since much of it means removing dunes and beach vegetation. This destroys both the natural beauty that draws people to the beach and nature’s way of staving off erosion. Beach renourishment has become a common, though not very effective, way of replenishing sand that washes away. Without dune vegetation there is nothing to hold the sand. For island nations as their beaches are eroded there is little space for them to move.
A lone survivor of coastal erosion in Vunidogoloa, a village on Fiji’s island of Vanua Levu. In 2014, all 153 villagers needed to relocate several miles inland. Credit: NRDC
During a king tide in Miami Beach, Florida a worker checks on the status of a storm drain while almost completely submerged in seawater. Credit : NRDC
Bigger stronger longer lasting storms
These are words no one ever wants attached to weather least of all when it hits close to home. In 2008 the IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change) predicted an intense increase in storms. Looking at the history of Atlantic hurricanes some new dangerous patterns have emerged. In the last 15 years hurricanes have radically changed. What used to be a common pattern where a hurricane would form in the water, make landfall then quickly dissipate has changed.
Hurricanes like Sandy, Irma and Dorian were twice the size of previous hurricanes categorized as CAT 4 or 5. They also stayed organized for several days often making landfall multiple times. What used to be the historical hurricane cone of the Caribbean and southeastern US must now include the entire east coast including Canada.
Droughts and the increase of wildfires have gotten expodentially worse. The western US now has a year round wildfire season. In Australia who could forget the photos of a scorched country. Over 3 million acres burned between 2019 – 2020. An estimated 3 billion animals died in what looked apocalyptic. In 2022 Tornados made the news for several weeks as dozens simultaneously swept across several Midwestern states wrecking havoc. More unusual was how places that had rarely experienced tornados suddenly had dozens.
Kangaroos seeking shelter from brushfires that raged for months. Some much of their home was destroyed they, like the Koala’s, have a very uncertain future.
LINDA ROBINSONSOCIAL MEDIA REUTERS
Comparison on two CAT 5 Hurricanes showing how much larger storms are becoming
Climate as a homeland security issue
As far back as 1990 the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the United States had put together a task for on climate change. They wanted to assess future climate change, weather patterns and water/food shortages on their impact to national security. They also wanted to determine the possible impact of eco refugee’s from island nations seeking a new home away from rising tides and daily floods.
In 2008 the US House of Representatives held a joint hearing for the SELECT COMMITTEE ON ENERGY INDEPENDENCE AND GLOBAL WARMING and the SUBCOMMITTEE ON INTELLIGENCE, COMMUNITY MANAGEMENT, PERMANENT SELECT COMMITTEE ON INTELLIGENCE on the national security implications of climate change. Despite statements about how burning fossil fuels were a driving force of many environmental problems we are now in 2022 and as addicted to oil as ever.
Here is a telling statement from 14 years ago from that hearing. California Congresswoman Anna Eshoo stated “I would note that in a speech last month, the NATO Secretary General, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, described the greatest security challenges facing the alliance. And he said the following, and I will close on this: ``In tomorrow's uncertain world, we cannot wait for threats to mature before deciding how we counter them. The nature of this new environment is already taking shape. It will be an environment that will be marked by the effects of climate change, such as territorial conflicts, rising food prices, and migration. It will be characterized by the scramble for energy resources, by the emergence of new powers, and by nonstate actors trying to gain access to deadly technologies. Note that the very first threat he mentioned are the effects of global climate change. There is no question in his mind that the climate change poses a national security challenge.”
In 2009 the CIA opened The Center on Climate Change and National Security to assess how environmental factors will potentially affect political, economic and social stability overseas. The US was not alone, the United Kingdom was putting together their own intelligence task force preparing to address the same impending security issues. Larger counties have only just begun to see the impending migration of those who can no longer live on the frontlines of rising tides.
There have been many studies and many task forces but little real action. “Climate Change and International Responses Increasing Challenges to US National Security Through 2040” published in 2022. “Climate change is an important factor in the current and future operating environment for the Joint Force, affecting foreign nations’ internal stability and military capabilities. We assess that climate change will increasingly exacerbate risks to U.S. national security interests as physical impacts increase and geopolitical tensions mount about how to respond. The physical effects of climate change are likely to intensify cross migraborder geopolitical flashpoints, including a growing risk of conflict over cross tion and water, food, and mineral resources.”
Take a look around and you’ll see eco refugees of all species. Some are migrating from floods others from wildfires or water pollution. The few non human species that can migrate to safer grounds will, though most will not be able to adapt in time and go extinct. It would behoove our own species to look for a serious way to mitigate what is already happening because what is coming down the road will be much worse. We can no longer deny or stop what is already in the pipeline. Will political agenda still hold the world captive or will acceptance of reality finally set it? Only time will tell and it’s not on our side. In a blink of an eye we could all be eco refugees.