ON THE SCENE: How should we address the challenge of climate refugees?
August 10, 2018


Imagine if the president of the United States, backed by Congress, outlawed the use of gas-fueled automobiles by the year 2025 and all other petroleum-fueled transport by 2027.

That's the kind of action that may be needed if we are to provide future generations a chance of surviving the mounting catastrophe coming our way based on the riveting evidence in "Climate Refugees: The Human Face of Climate Change," to be screened at the John Brown Farm State Historic Site at 4 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 19.

This action might seem extreme, but it's one that we've done before, then called on by President Franklin Roosevelt when he needed our auto industry to shift from making cars to making tanks and other armaments of war. The wake-up call was the attack on Pearl Harbor. Within a month, Roosevelt had set staggering goals for our nation and its businesses, and they met that challenge. Today that challenge would be to create a fleet of electric vehicles to meet all transportation needs, 10 times the number of wind turbines and solar panels to generate the electricity, a revamped power grid, and vast improvements in battery storage capacities.

The danger signs of increasing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, now far higher than it's been in the past 400,000 years, are all around us. Have you noticed how much of our media is filled with news about extreme weather such as floods and fires, and the heat wave baking Europe, Japan the Middle East, and parts of our nation? Those headlines are being written in response to the early stages of climate change.

Addressing climate change will require an international effort. We need to initiate initiatives worldwide in concert with our allies along with China and India, nations with the two largest populations. Do nothing and the challenge of addressing a million people seeking to cross our borders would be child's play. How about 100 million arriving on our shores?

As Winston Churchill said to the British Parliament and a world not then listening: "The era of procrastination, half measures, soothing and baffling expedients, and delays is coming to its close, in its place we are entering an era of consequences."

Our problem in addressing climate change, from the standpoint of the way our brain works, is that we don't have a bombing of a Pearl Harbor to react against.

Like a frogs sitting in a pot of water heating toward a boil, we keep making adjustments to our changing circumstances, but soon the fluctuations will become so violent that we will not be able to arrest the heating of our planet fast enough to save our children and grandchildren's lives. Furthermore, the people living where the impact of climate change is most severely felt are primarily the poor and disadvantaged like the millions residing just a few feet above sea level in Bangladesh, the island nations of the Indian and Pacific oceans, and our Inuits living near the Arctic Ocean. We ignore their struggles at our peril.

Consider that nearly one-third of the world's population depends on just 10 rivers for their primary water source. They include the Ganges, Indus, Irrawaddy, Mekong, Salween, Yangtze, and Yellow River, which now fails to reach the sea. A problem is their source: the glaciers of Tibet are fast receding, and many will disappear. That's a challenge made worse as the great aquifers under China and India are dramatically shrinking from the demands placed on them by each country's massive populations. Imagine a significant portion of those three billion, soon to be four billion, on the move looking for a new place to live.

The truth is, many are already on the move, particularly in Indonesia and Bangladesh. Since many of them are Muslim, the people of India and China, who are primarily Hindu or Buddhist, are not throwing out welcoming arms, plus each of those two countries already has a billion mouths to feed. Already clashes between peoples of differing faiths are taking place in Asia as people like the Rohingya struggle to find new homes.

People are already on the move in the United States. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, it displaced nearly a million people. About 600,000 returned home, but the remaining 400,000 climate refugees all settled in other communities, such as Houston. Then Hurricane Harvey hit. While the number permanently displaced has not yet been officially calculated cities like Austin have seen their populations surge with refugees from Harvey. Puerto Rico has by no means recovered from being run over by two hurricanes last year. Many people are still living without power or a local source of clean water nearly a year later, and 2,500 people have left the island for good.

So, what does all this mean for us? The Champlain and St. Lawrence valleys may soon be viewed as places to relocate Midwestern agribusiness as the Ogallala Aquifer continues to shrink. Damming the Hudson River could be pushed through the state legislature as a means of generating power and water for downstate communities. Food bills will skyrocket as more and more of the world food sources become drowned by rising seas driving up costs.

Martha Swan, founder and president of John Brown Lives!, and her board decided to screen the "Climate Refugees" documentary.

"Just as slavery was the issue of the day that we needed to reckon with, so too is environmental catastrophe and climate change today," said Swan. "John Brown was an advocate of the poor and the most despised, the most vulnerable and the most fragile. The people on the front lines of climate change are the world's poor."

Leading the post-screening discussion will be Alexandra Harden, 32, of Lake Placid, a graduate of Northwood School and Columbia University where she recently completed her graduate studies with a focus on the destabilizing impacts of climate variability on long-term change. Harden is now working with AC4, the Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict, and Complexity of Columbia's Earth Institute.

"When you have these events, when you have large storms hitting developing countries displacing massive populations, what's our responsibility to help them become more resilient?" said Harden. "Do we take them in? Should we look at past emission scenarios of which the U.S. has contributed 25 percent, and (as a consequence) take 25 percent of those displaced? We are struggling now to handle refugees displaced by conflict, how do we address the needs of the environmental refugees? Consider that before the Arab Spring and the Syrian Revolution they had five years of drought that displaced 1.5 million people according to the UNHCR. In many places around the world, displaced people are moving into another third-world country that doesn't have the infrastructure to support their own populations."

Come to John Brown's farm, see the film and be a part of the discussion. Sitting on the sidelines, as Churchill foretold, is no longer an option.


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