Eventually, We Will All Be Climate Refugees

Eventually, We Will All Be Climate Refugees

While I was in Iraq reporting on the occupation from 2003 to 2013, the man who was my primary interpreter was named Harb. Harb’s son miraculously managed to escape war-torn Baghdad and move to the U.S. with his wife and children. Both doctors, the courageous couple has managed to create a safe home and life for themselves and their children, along with Harb’s wife. (Harb is now deceased.) They live in Tampa, Florida.

My head swims while pondering the multilayered irony of Harb and his family. They all had to flee Baghdad when the violence escalated, as the occupation wore on. First, they fled to Damascus, until Syria imploded. Then they fled to Beirut. “Now I am a double refugee,” I remember Harb telling me, laughing (he always laughed at his tragedies), when we spoke during that time. He had by then managed to get all of his children out of Iraq, each of them now safely relocated to more stable countries. Then for roughly two years he and his wife sat in Beirut, waiting, until their visas to the U.S. finally came through, and they were finally able to join their son and his wife, and their grandchildren, in Tampa.

After two months with his son, daughter-in-law, grandchildren, and wife, knowing all of his family, and his wife, were at long last safe, Harb’s huge heart finally gave out and he died.

Now, as the seas rise and hurricanes intensify — thanks to the climate chaos fueled by events like the U.S. government invading and occupying Iraq so as to obtain and burn that country’s oil (not to mention the U.S. military’s gargantuan carbon footprint) — how long will Harb’s son and his family be able to remain in Tampa, until they are climate refugees? It won’t take too many feet of sea level rise for much of Tampa to become unlivable. Or perhaps sooner than that, one massive climate-disruption augmented hurricane and most of the city would be swamped by the storm surge alone.

Suffice it to say, all of us now, if we live long enough, are likely to become climate refugees at some point … whether it be from lack of food and water, rising seas, wildfires, smoke, or extreme weather events. For many, their time as climate refugees has already begun.

A survey of the last 30 days of scientific studies and extreme weather events shows us the driving force behind these displacements: the mounting climate crisis. An early July heatwave across Alaska found temperatures in the state literally rivaling those in Miami, Florida. Alaska saw its warmest June ever recorded, with the average temperature a stunning 5.3 degrees Fahrenheit (5.3°F) above the normal average for that month … for the entire state. That month was the 16th in a row when the average temperature in Alaska was above normal.

A truly apocalyptic scene occurred in Guadalajara, one of the most heavily populated cities in Mexico. On July 1, a freak hailstorm dumped ice pellets up to six feet deep in places. Cars were buried. The storm came on suddenly: Temperatures leading up to the event in the city were around 88°F.

At the beginning of July, Mumbai, the financial capital of India, received the average amount of rain it gets for the entire month of June in just 48 hours amid incredible flooding there. At least 18 people died, and much of the city’s transportation was severely disrupted or ground to a halt.

A recent NASA study showed that after hitting a record high in sea ice extent in 2014, by 2017, Antarctic sea ice had plunged to a record low, stunning scientists. That means that in just three years, Antarctica lost an area of sea ice larger than the size of Mexico.

Making matters worse, another study of the ice continent, this one from Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, showed that Antarctica could well be at a tipping point in which glacial melting will continue to accelerate and become irreversible, even if global heating is eased. The study found instability within the Thwaites glacier, which means it could well become impossible to stop from flowing into the sea, bringing with it one and a half feet of global sea level rise by itself. This on the heels of another study showing the rate of loss of ice from five glaciers in the Antarctic had doubled in just six years and was already five times faster than it was during the 1990s.

Industrial humans have pushed the planet off the climate precipice. This month’s dispatch shows that most of these changes are locked in, and will only worsen and intensify as the global capitalist economy grinds on.

Earth

Increasingly warm temperatures are the key driver in spreading ticks and the diseases they carry to more people and livestock. A recent report showed how several different species of ticks are spreading into areas of the U.S. they had previously not been known to inhabit.

A prominent expert in Canada warned in February that caribou there are now on track to become extinct in every region of the country where they currently exist. Naturally, one of the key factors driving this extinction is climate disruption.

In March, The Narwhal published an open letter written by scientists and academics in British Columbia and Alberta, Canada, that stated British Columbia has a stunning 1,807 species now at risk of extinction, and there are currently no existing rules or laws that could protect them. Worsening matters, the government of that province is now backtracking on a promise it had previously made to legislate to protect more species.

Even Canada’s military is feeling the strain from climate disruption, as troops are being deployed to increasing numbers of climate-related emergencies, such as flooding and wildfires.

Meanwhile, staple crops in the U.S. Midwest have been taking a beating from runaway climate disruption impacts, such as repeated floods during the spring and scorching hot and dry summers. Because of the dramatic and record-setting flooding this spring, many farmers weren’t able to plant crops at all. Expect food price spikes to come this fall and beyond.

Further complicating matters, another report showed how ecosystems across the Great Plains have shifted 365 miles to the north since just 1970.

A recent UN report showed that what the organization calls “climate apartheid” will push a stunning 120 million more people into poverty in barely over a decade from now. Why “apartheid”? There is a deep divide when it comes to who is most impacted by climate disruption: The rich can afford to continue to protect themselves (for now), while the poor cannot.

Another study showed that climate disruption could make microbes in the tundra of Alaska release even more greenhouse gases. This is worrisome, as the tundra of the Arctic contains half of all the carbon on the planet. “We saw that microbial communities respond quite rapidly — within four or five years — to even modest levels of warming,” an author of the recent study told Newsweek.

A recently published study showed that the severe drought afflicting California in recent years (2012-15) killed nearly 150 million trees.

Water

Across northern Alaska, the disappearance of the sea ice coming so early this spring alarmed both coastal residents and scientists alike. Subsistence hunters had to travels tens of miles in open water to find seals to hunt, while scientists who have been tracking the loss of sea ice due to climate disruption are more alarmed than ever.

Alaska’s Exit Glacier, made more famous during former President Obama’s visit to the state, is rapidly retreating up the steep valley from which it emerges from the Harding Ice field. Until recently, it was retreating by around three feet annually; it has now accelerated to retreating 300 feet each year.

Ice loss across the Himalayas is happening so rapidly now that another report underscored what recent studies have warned of: More than 1 billion people in Asia who depend on the water from said glaciers for irrigation and drinking will be left high and dry, sooner rather than later.

Similarly, a recent report showed nonlinear melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet … enough rapidity of melting that some scientists are now discussing the possibility of the entire ice sheet melting, which by itself would add 24 feet to global sea levels.

In New Zealand, the coastal Hohepa community is now being forced to move further inland due to rising seas.

Another report showed how inland waters in the U.S., like rivers, streams, and the Great Lakes, are warming enough already that fish that live in them — and hence the entire inland fishing industry — are suffering because of it. For example, fish are extremely sensitive to temperature changes in the water, and are migrating to other areas in order to survive.

Meanwhile, the Great Barrier Reef of Australia has more bad news. A recent report from the governmental Australian Institute of Marine Science shows that in just the last five years, there has been a 10-30 percent decline in hard corals, due to climate disruption-driven coral bleaching, crown-of-thorns starfish invasions, and cyclones.

Fire

The Arctic is melting and burning.

The week of Fourth of July brought a slew of high temperature records across Alaska, as much of the state was also engulfed in smoke from multiple wildfires.

As scientists have long predicted would happen in the Arctic as a result of climate disruption, the region is drying out from worsening heat waves, and wildfires are occurring further north, starting earlier, and burning more intensely.

Even Hawaii is burning, as a large wildfire on the island of Maui recently forced thousands to evacuate several towns.

Urban areas of Canada’s British Columbia, places like Vancouver’s North Shore, are now understood to no longer be safe from the worsening threat of wildfires. They are now preparing themselves for worst-case scenarios as the imminent threat of wildfires looms.

Much of Western Europe recently scorched under a record-breaking heat wave, with France seeing record-high temperatures, as wildfires burned across northeastern Spain. France’s record-high temperature for the month of June was set, at a baking 107.6°F. “This heat wave is unprecedented in France. It is exceptional in its intensity,” French Health Minister Agnes Buzyn told DW News.

Yet later that month a new all-time record was set for France, as the temperature in Gallargues-le-Montueux hit a staggering 45.9°C (114.62°F).

Air

Seeing the writing on the wall when it comes to chronic summer wildfires, the city of Seattle is actively creating “breathing rooms” in five public buildings that will have air filtration systems that keep the air inside clean when the region becomes inundated with wildfire smoke.

This is a good thing, since another recent report warned of how wildfire smoke is now an increasing health risk for millions of people across the U.S. as wildfires become more frequent, more intense, and burn longer, thanks to climate disruption.

Temperatures this summer across much of the country have been setting records. It was so hot in South Dakota that roads buckled, and in Northern California, mussels cooked in their shells along the beach.

Tourists actually went to the beach in Alaska because it was so hot. Anchorage saw six days in a row of 80°F-plus weather, which was the longest stretch on record. During one stretch recently, Anchorage only had five out of 16 days that the city had not tied or broken a daily heat record. Three communities in the state broke all-time high temperature records on July 4: Kenai hit 89°F, Anchorage saw 90°F, and King Salmon reached 89°F. Record keeping began at the Anchorage International Airport in 1952, and since then Anchorage has seen only 40 days where temperatures were over 80°F. Eight of those are from this year alone.

Denial and Reality

Despite the urgent crisis we face, the Trump administration is continuing full-speed ahead with its climate denialism.

Having actively rolled back environmental protections and rescinded rules that cut pollution, President Trump claimed the U.S. is a leader in environmentalism.

During an interview on CNN, Vice President Mike Pence, when pressed, repeatedly refused to say that the climate crisis is a threat to the U.S. This came at the end of a week when the Trump administration had rolled back the Clean Power Plan set in motion by former President Barack Obama.

The Trump administration also actively removed references to the climate crisis from U.S. Geological Survey press releases about a new study that the institution had conducted for infrastructure planning along coastal California.

The Trump administration also had the Agriculture Department bury studies that revealed the dangers of the climate crisis, and ceased the promotion of government-funded research about how higher temperatures damage crops and pose risks to human health.

Denialism around the gravity of the climate crisis of course exists on the other side of the political spectrum as well.

During the first of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates’ debates, the climate crisis received a grand total of seven minutes of airtime.

On the acknowledging-reality front, New York City became the first U.S. city of more than a million people to declare a climate emergency.

Dozens more universities are now declaring a climate emergency, joining educational networks that now represent over 7,000 schools and higher learning institutions that have done so.

Meanwhile, the consulting firm Moody’s Analytics warned that the climate crisis would cause damage to critical infrastructure and workers’ health and productivity that could cost upward of a stunning $69 trillion by the year 2100.

It is past time to acknowledge these realities. At a certain point, we won’t have to look at studies to understand them: We will literally feel them. For many, that time is here already. June officially was the hottest June ever recorded on Planet Earth, and the last five years were the five hottest years ever recorded.