Climate Refugees

PROJECTIONS of global warming and the expected scale of climate change are becoming repetitious and tiresome, as are the endless debates about whether or not it’s all really happening and what’s causing it. The models and prophecies of chaotic weather leading to floods, droughts, heat waves, and monstrous storms seem almost irrelevant if not downright boring. Why? Because they’re already happening. Climate chaos is with us. And about 20 million people around the world have already suffered the consequences. Twenty million is the widely accepted estimate of “climate refugees,” currently defined as people who have involuntarily left their homelands in response to untenable environmental factors. Never before have so many people lost their homelands so rapidly and so permanently.

In 2001, ten French writers and photojournalists created Collectif Argos and set out to document the loss of land and livelihood in remote communities around the world. They followed the path of scientists who had watched and recorded shifting weather patterns and predicted that remote local communities, reliant on natural resources, would be the first and hardest hit by global warming and climate change. They appear to have been right.

People living close to the land, those most dependent on “ecological services” for their livelihood, are bound to be first to notice things like rising temperatures, excessive precipitation, shifting seasons, unusual migration patterns, larger wind and waves, depleted glaciers, drought, rising water levels, and vector-borne diseases. And such people have been reporting many of those changes for some time now. But minor, slightly disconcerting changes have, of late, progressed to extremes and produced a host of unprecedented permanent disasters for the most vulnerable and fragile human communities on the planet, many of which have suffered complete loss of land and livelihood.

What is ironic and particularly poignant about these episodes is that they are happening to the people who have contributed least to greenhouse gas emissions and who have learned over hundreds, even thousands, of years how to endure extreme weather in their homelands. They are also the most marginalized voices in the climate discourse, and their vast knowledge of climate change and traditional coping mechanisms is virtually ignored, despite the fact that they have so much to offer the world in the way of survival skills.

People of the Arctic, the Sundarbans, the Maldives, the Longbaoshan, the Louisiana Gulf Coast, Tuvalu, Lake Chad, and the Himalayas comprise the nine communities Collectif Argos visited with pen and camera to produce, in 2007, the sad and haunting Climate Refugees, recently translated and published in English. While the global pool of climate literature is crowded and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to advance the climate story, this book does so by documenting firsthand the day-to-day experience of people being challenged by weather conditions so extreme, they are simply forced to quit, pull up roots, and move to higher ground. Their remote and rugged communities, all struggling to adapt to chaos, are canaries in the global mine of climate change. And their stories are moral barometers for the rest of the world.