While the world watches its politicians arguing over the economic tangle that cutting emissions seems to have become, the issue that largely seems to have largely been edged out of the limelight is the social impact that climate change will have on people. The coastlines of the world are a hub for large populations and as sea levels rise, driving them inward, social and economic problems will dislocate life as we know it. The ordinary man may not understand the connection between climate change and rising food prices, but as storms get more violent and floods get more frequent and the Governments’ abilities to reconstruct get increasingly tested, climate change will have to be recognised and understood- by everyone.
The most devastating impact of climate change, in this opinion, is the very disintegration of society itself. This may not be foreseen in the immediate future but one day, those projected dates in the frightening climate change forecasts will arrive. If the glaciers do melt into nothing and drought takes over our land, dependent almost entirely on rainfall, we will have no food security and extreme water shortage. There have been recent reports over people fighting to death over water tankers, and ‘goondas’ guarding water pipes at gunpoint in India. States are at battle over existing rivers, but what happens when they all dry up? In rain-starved Rajasthan in 2005, protests by farmers of the villages against the diversion of water from the Banas to Jaipur instead of to their wilting fields led to five deaths as the police opened fire on the non violent crowd. In Kerala , farmers have forced a Coca Cola factory to suspend operations, accusing it of draining a nearby aquifer which is vital for agriculture. In Bhopal, once deemed the City of Lakes, the water supply has been cut down to 30 minutes once in two days as the monsoon failed cross India. A family was hacked to death by furious neighbours claiming that they had been stealing water.
People will do whatever it takes to survive. There will be wars fought over water and food supply. The severe shifts in weather can drown out or dry out large regions. Surrounded by scarcity, people will not care for governments, or education or social order. Climate refugees will cross borders into inhospitable lands and though this may sound like fiction, already vividly depicted in movies like ‘The Day After Tomorrow’, these scenarios are perfectly possible. They are happening today. The problem with the term ‘climate refugee’ is the unclear definition. The United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees merely refers to refugees as those fearing persecution back home. When climate refugees cross international borders, they will not be given legal rights or protection, and will be considered nothing but a drain on the refuge country’s resources.
The Carteret Island people off the coast of Papua New Guinea are set to become one of the first climate refugees in the world. Their island is sinking, turning the soil into a brackish desert. They cannot do anything to stop it, and are suffering from food and water shortage. They propose to relocate to the Bougainville island 50 miles away, and the people there have agreed to let them share the land. They lament however, that to acquire this living space, they will have to give up their social identity as Carteret people and acquire the Tinputz identity of their new home. They are lucky to have people willing to help, but what happens when millions of refugees cross borders into countries that cannot support them? The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that 150 million people may be displaced by climate change by 2050, but only a small fraction of them actually know the danger.
The upper middle class sits back in the evening to watch the news of floods and climate catastrophe, unaware of the reality of the situation. Isn’t it just easier to dismiss a strong cyclone as an aberration and write a cheque to the relief fund than to face the truth? Observers want facts, a confirmation that the news isn’t tailored to sensationalism.
The truth exists and so do these facts. The Sunderbans of the Bengal region are sinking by 3.14 mm every year. It didn’t sound like much until I read that four islands Bedford, Lohachara, Kabasgadi and Suparibhanga -disappeared under the rising sea in two decades, displacing 6,000 families. Now, two-thirds of Ghoramara island is underwater and as harried Govt. officials shift the inhabitants to the neighbouring Sagar island, the latter loses more land in addition to the 7500 acres already submerged. The people are losing their homes, their livelihood and their sources of freshwater. Adaptation apart from relocation involves their efforts in building embankments which are unfortunately damaged by the tidal waves due to irregular maintenance. The locals do their part by planting mangroves along the coastline to prevent storm surges and 18 to 20 photovoltaic plants have been set up to provide power to 100,000 people and reduce dependence on fossil fuel. However, these are not permanent solutions to the rising sea levels and the inevitable dislocation they will cause.
We must pull ourselves together and face these issues together without barriers of rich and poor, developed and underdeveloped, hindering our progress. We need to understand how climate change can affect all our lives, because ignorance and indifference are luxuries we can ill afford.