Home Commentary Now is the Time to Prepare to Accommodate Climate Chaos Refugees

Now is the Time to Prepare to Accommodate Climate Chaos Refugees

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Image of pole with dates on a sign attached to it indicated dates of flooding: the highest is 1992.
A flood gauge on the North Branch in Montpelier indicates historic flood levels in Montpelier. Climate change may increase flood events. Photo by John Dillon.
Climate chaos threatens the habitability of large areas of Earth, including the United States. African nations are meeting to develop strategies to move whole populations from soon-to-be uninhabitable locations to relatively safe regions. Much of Pakistan is under water due the 2022 monsoon which delivered triple the usual monsoon rainfall. That flooding included 45% of the country’s agricultural land, a considerable amount of which was washed away. Significant areas of Iran have experienced temperatures above 50 degrees C (122 degrees F), well above the lethal threshold for humans. Flooding, drought, and extensive fires typify much of the globe’s experience of ‘climate change.’ 

In the U.S., people are starting to move from the West Coast because of forest fires that reduce some communities to ash and create air pollution felt across the continent. In the Southwest, the two largest U.S. reservoirs on the Colorado River are drained to 10% of capacity, and their levels still fall. Agriculture that feeds much of the country and cities such as Phoenix are in unwilling competition for the diminishing water. Appalachian states such as Kentucky experience flooding, setting records in both extent and frequency, as well as abnormal numbers and sizes of tornadoes in the region and beyond. Sea level rises threaten to displace people from Miami to New England. 

The green slopes of Vermont and the few similar New England regions will be a powerful magnet to people seeking escape from parched, drowned, intolerably hot, and burned-out regions of the U.S. and elsewhere.  

Green Vermont will attract refugees from regions made harsh and, in some cases, unlivable, by the worsening effects of ‘climate change.’ This migration will begin sooner, rather than later, especially from stressed parts of the U.S. where people with the wherewithal already are on the move.

Congress has finally appropriated funds to begin reducing our country’s ruination of climate as we knew it. But the effort funded will, in my view, turn out to be too little and too late to avoid serious consequences, which have already begun. Moreover, it cannot offset the weaker efforts of many other countries, particularly those without the wealth to effect major changes in their economies. Climate chaos arises globally, but from both individual and collective choices. Poor people cannot be expected to choose to focus on the future while they struggle to deal with daily survival. Even if the U.S. and the rest of the world somehow reach net-zero carbon-equivalent emissions by 2050, climate change will continue, possibly well over a century after net zero, driven by pent-up forces. (See sidebar, next page). 

To avoid chaotic missteps, I encourage development of public dialog now about how Montpelier can best meet the added stress of refugees in our community while also minimizing destructive local effects of climate change.

Central Vermont is not immune to climate chaos. As the region warms, particularly in winters, risk of ice jams on the Winooski River will diminish. However, the strength of hurricanes in the eastern U.S. is increasing, and we can expect more storms carrying serious loads of rainfall potentially sufficient to cause catastrophic flooding. Drought may punctuate the general increase in precipitation. Higher temperatures exacerbate drought.

The area’s surrounding forests provide flood moderation and a bulwark against excessive heat. Forests help absorb rainfall, provide cooling, favor frequent moderate rain versus cloudbursts, and anchor the soil, greatly reducing the risk of catastrophic landslides that may otherwise result from extreme weather. 

Refugees from regions affected by far harsher changes cannot be prudently located on the floodplain that the present population occupies. (Indeed, we will be pressed to somehow move many existing homes, businesses, and government facilities to higher ground.)

We have an opportunity now to begin a public discourse to examine options and agree on the safest way to locate and support newcomers with homes, infrastructure, and services while causing the least possible damage to the forested hillsides that can protect our community from the full force of extreme climate events. Whether this be done by social media, email discussion groups, library meetings, or other exchanges, I leave to concerned people younger and more connected than myself. 

The alternative to orderly migration is conflict, perhaps regional at first, but inevitably international. We can stand by and hope we are safe, remote from the worst effects of climate chaos, or use the near future to both secure our own environment to the extent possible and prepare to accept reasonable numbers of displaced people. 

Dan Hemenway was a permaculture teacher, publisher, and designer from 1981 until his retirement in about 2010. He has international awards in conservation and community service and five advanced degrees from the International Permaculture Institute.


Potential Causes for Runaway Climate Chaos

Because people have delayed accepting the serious reality of major climate disruption, we may have passed the points where various climate-destabilizing forces can be easily reversed, if at all. Some of these forces are:

  • Increased warming due to ocean thermal mass. Experts estimate that the oceans have absorbed more than 90% of warming. Water has a great capacity to absorb energy without warming as much as do other materials such as air, rock, and earth. The energy stored in the oceans will continue to evaporate water and warm air even if we reach net-zero carbon emissions (a highly unlikely achievement.)
  • Burning forests. Warming and shifts in rainfall patterns threaten very large areas of Earth’s forests. One report claims that of the three major tropical rainforests, only those of Southeast Asia continue to capture more carbon than they release. The Amazon forest and that of tropical Africa are now releasing their stored carbon, mainly by burning. Certain regions of temperate forests are increasingly burning, such as those in the western U.S. The taiga or boreal forests, perhaps the largest extant forest on the planet, have been burning over large areas. Forest burning not only eliminates the best way to capture and store carbon, it also releases carbon stored over past epochs.
  • Release of methane hydrides. Methane is stored as hydrides in cold conditions under the oceans and under the Arctic permafrost. Ocean warming and thawing of permafrost, accelerated by burning boreal forests, threaten to release this potent greenhouse gas. There is disagreement by experts about the potential severity of this cause of climate disruption.
  • Melting Arctic ice. The planet’s Arctic cap has in recent geological epochs been covered by sea ice. More recently, the sea ice has been melting at progressively increasing rates. White ice reflects a relatively large proportion of sunlight back into space, compared with open sea, which absorbs light, thus warming. Arctic conditions contribute to major wind patterns that affect the climate of Eurasia and North America and interact with warmer air patterns. This destabilization already affects the climate over much of the Northern Hemisphere.
These, and likely other climate-disruptive factors, provide urgent reasons to reinvigorate our efforts to reduce our personal and civic contributions to moderate climate change and to collectively strategize how to prudently absorb the climate refugees that will ensue, even in the best-case scenario.

—D.H.

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