The human cost of climate change

May 30, 2009

In 2000, the small Pacific island nation Tuvalu made a formal request to Australia to accept its people if they were forced to evacuate because of global warming-induced sea level rises.

At the time, then-attorney general Philip Ruddock outright refused. "Why would I agree with that?", he asked, quickly dismissing the Tuvaluan people's desperation.

The situation has only become worse. Across the island country, the sea level is rising by 5.7mm a year. With a population of 10,000 people, it will be completely uninhabitable by the end of the century.

Already, salt from rising tides is poisoning the palms. A bleached and dying coral reef is killing off fish, the main food supply.

The federal Labor government has not said whether Ruddock's rejection will hold fast.

Australia already has a harsh anti-refugee policy. Despite acknowledging that recent arrivals from Afghanistan, Iraq and Sri Lanka are fleeing wars and conflict — which the Australian government either participates in or refuses to condemn — Prime Minister Kevin Rudd remains more defensive of Australia's borders than concerned for refugee rights.

If capitalist governments were to admit that they had failed to halt global warming, they would have to deal with a whole new global refugee problem, that of climate refugees.

Climate science is revealing extreme scenarios that will come about as the planet crosses various "tipping points" with disastrous consequences.

The increasing severity of extreme weather patterns, melting glaciers, spreading deserts, drought, fires and heat means large areas of the planet will rapidly become unsuitable for human life.

Loss of land, crops and freshwater supplies are already forcing people to abandon their homelands. It is an acute and immediate impact of global warming that has been largely ignored.

South-East Asia and the Pacific are highly exposed and sensitive to environmental changes. They equally lack the capacity to cope.

It is a cruel twist of history that the excessive carbon emissions of rich, industrialised nations will worst affect populations like Tuvalu. Similarly, the low-lying Carteret Islands in Papua New Guinea will be completely inundated by rising seas by 2015. They are already relocating to neighbouring Bougainville, but the options are slim.

A recent study by the World Wildlife Fund revealed the extent of the human climate emergency. The biodiverse Coral Triangle in the Indo-Pacific region is a source of food for more than 150 million people. As much as 90% of the reef could be gone by the end of the century, the study said.

For many people and for many countries, fish from the Coral Triangle is the only source of protein in their diet.

Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, who led the study, told ABC Radio on May 13, "I think we've got to take this issue as a global emergency".

"In one scenario, we continue along our current climate trajectory and do little to protect coastal environments from the onslaught of local threats", Hoegh-Guldberg said in a statement that day.

"In this world ... poverty increases, food security plummets, economies suffer and coastal people migrate increasingly to urban areas."

Evacuated Pacific Islanders are evidence climate change is already happening. They will inevitably be followed by more environmental refugees.

Long before sea level rises swallow towns and cities, small surges of sea levels will push salt water into aquifers, destroying supplies of safe drinking water. By 2030, 50% of the world's population will live in areas of high water stress or drought.

Peasant farmers and fisher people are seeing their source of income and survival destroyed.

In April, an indigenous summit on climate change, held in Anchorage, Alaska, heard stories of indigenous people all over the world, already oppressed and discriminated against, who will be forced to flee their land.

"Our peoples have been wounded many times over but we have always had our environment and our land. That is no longer so sure", Sheila Watt Cloutier, former chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, told the summit.

"Climate change needs to be reframed as a human rights issue."

It is clear the Third World will be worst hit. Much of this devastation will hit the lower latitudes of the world, and this is of course where those least able to protect against it live.

Bangladesh, for example, will lose one third of its land area, and this is mostly agricultural land. Parts of Earth currently densely populated will become uninhabitable by the end of the century.

Climate change scenarios tell us that hundreds of millions of people will die from drought, floods, fires and heat. Hundreds of millions more will become climate refugees.

They will be unable to stay where they are and — as the world's political record indicates — they will have no where to go.

Australia — the biggest per capita polluter in the world and a major exporter of coal — is part of the rich world indifference that is effectively punishing those least responsible and yet worst impacted by climate change.

No international treaties recognise climate refugees. The Australian Greens have proposed broadening the definition of refugees, but the Australian government has refused to acknowledge any such steps as necessary. Nowhere in the federal government's climate change green paper are climate refugees mentioned. Meanwhile, its defence white paper gives the issue some attention, but in the context of "potential tensions" and the possibility that Australia will need to be defended from its neighbours who will be most affected by environment devastation.

Climate change is revealing to more and more people just how badly capitalism treats the Earth. It is only comparable to how it treats the people of Earth.

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