By Christian Flinn
This article is a continuation of a series of features focused on addressing the threat of sea-level rise (SLR) in terms of human cost. You may find a previous article here.
A study published in the Nature science journal details projections for the possible human cost of natural disasters in terms of displacement. The study relies heavily on SLR projections provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that depict outcomes under a 0.3m, 0.9m, and 1.8m SLR scenario. The previous article discusses some of the more salient scientific points, especially with regards to the fact that the study is largely aimed at demonstrating which states and counties in the U.S. are at the highest risk from SLR. This article, then, will focus on the cumulative and long-term costs of displacement – both to the individuals involved and the country overall.
The study analyzes 292 U.S. coastal counties and makes displacement projections for each scenario detailed above. To put these projections in perspective, under the 1.8m SLR scenario up to 11.7 million people could find themselves displaced. On a global scale, it is safe to assume those projections would increase exponentially and unevenly, with some countries and communities facing far more displacement than others. This is evidenced in another study from 2015, which found that around 19.3 million people were displaced worldwide by disasters (both natural and manmade) in 2014. While that number is noteworthy by itself, it is also true that around 91% of those displacements were caused by floods and storms – both events directly correlated with SLR. This does not necessarily indicate an increase in very large or mega level events where flooding or storms are concerned, rather it is in line with current predictions of increased nuisance flooding and more frequent storm and surf events.
Such a statement is corroborated by the fact that while small/medium sized events only displaced around 3.3 million people globally in 2014, there were still a record 663 separate small/medium sized events in the first place (compared to 29 large events, displacing 10 million, and only 3 mega events, displacing 5.9 million). In the U.S., nowhere are such statistics more disturbing than in Florida, which already accounts for over half of the at risk population under the 1.8m SLR scenario. In Miami alone, nuisance flooding events could increase to somewhere between 200 and 250 per year by 2045, putting millions at risk.
While predictions for the future are definitely cause for concern, problems related to SLR similar to the those described in the Nature study are already occurring – evidenced in some of the first climate refugees. One particularly vivid example is the plight of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe located on Isle de Jean Charles, LA. Having settled on a 22,400-acre island with 300 people in 1955, the tribe is facing a crisis as its home is slowly swallowed by the sea – today the island has been reduced to a 320-acre strip with barely 60 people on it. While the Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded the tribe $48 million to relocate through the National Disaster Resilience Competition, the culture and way of life the island once sustained is being and will, almost inevitably, be lost to climate change. The tribe’s story will become more common if SLR continues unchecked, with projections estimating 200 million people in coastal communities around the world at risk of displacement by 2050. While it is true that some communities have more manmade grievances than others (in this case underground oil pipelines have contributed to the sinking land), the underlying issue is anthropogenic climate change and resultant SLR.
Finding a solution to the problem of climate refugees and increased displacement is thus dependent on long-term solutions, reducing carbon emissions and combatting global warming, as well as short-term solutions, such as relocation, where displacement is already inevitable. The costs associated with relocation, however, as evidenced above, are high and will only continue increasing if land area becomes more restricted. What is more, investments in development and infrastructure may well be lost if they are not protected effectively and built to accommodate the need for resilience. Barring these developments, increasingly frequent natural disasters will continue working their way along the coast and causing untold millions of dollars’ worth of damage and loss of life. The keys to combatting these trends, then, are threefold, including: resilience planning, natural habitat restoration, and proper funding for the maintenance of coastal defenses. Combined, they can create a formula for effectively combatting and even reversing SLR, but it is up to local and Federal governments to act on them.
For more information, please contact Christian Flinn at Christian.Flinn@warwickconsultants.net.