The Coming Storm: Climate Change Refugees

Roger Durling, Guest Writer 

“Saving our planet, lifting people out of poverty, advancing economic growth… these are one and the same fight. We must connect the dots between climate change, water scarcity, energy shortages, global health, food security and women’s empowerment. Solutions to one problem must be solutions for all.” -Ban Ki-moon

Much ado has been made about the refugee crisis because of unrest in the Middle East. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, an estimated 5,020,470 people are registered as Syrian refugees – a number higher than the population of any  of the 116 smallest countries in the world. While that statistic is staggering, it is in no way the largest refugee crisis our world will face in the 21 century.

The Maldives, a low-lying archipelago nation, is a collection of 1,200 islands with a total population of just under 400,000 people. More than 80% of these islands are three feet or less above sea level. Due to rising tides, 14 of these islands have already been abandoned. Just 14 out of 1,200 is roughly 1% of the total landmass, which doesn’t seem like much. However, The United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) estimates that sea levels will rise approximately 23 inches in the 21st century – completely obliterating a vast majority of the nation’s landmass. In preparation, the nation’s president has been purchasing land in Australia so that one day – maybe sooner than later – the entire population can be moved to their new home, on high ground, 2,000 miles away.

The Maldives is going to be the first nation to fall victim to climate change, but certainly not the last. The UN estimates that over 200,000,000 people will, in this century, be considered climate refugees, forced out of their traditional homes by climate change with limited recourse to resettle naturally. Nations like Kiribati, Chile, The Netherlands, and others are all extremely susceptible to climate-related disasters. This leads me to paraphrase Dr. Missy Stults, a climate adaptation specialist who recently spoke at an event at the best University in the world; we must stop referring to climate change as an environmental issue. It is a national security issue. It is an economic issue. It is a human rights issue. It is a public health issue. I agree with the good doctor. Climate change affects every aspect of human existence, and unless we stop acting as though the rainforest is the only thing under siege, by the time we realize the true costs it will be too late to not make full payment. While it would be possible to explore every nook and cranny of the effects of climate refugees, nobody wants to sit through that. So this post will focus on the national security and economic impacts.

National Security

Let’s pretend, for a moment, that the United States has a president and majority in both houses of Congress that are fearful of refugees for the national security implications of having a major influx of people coming into the country as a result of Middle Eastern turmoil (wild and unbelievable, I know). The crisis that those members of our government hypothetically fear is 40 times smaller than the estimated number of  climate refugees that will be flocking to inland countries throughout the world. It’s also far more contained, we know where Syrian and Iraqi refugees come from. Climate refugees will come from every corner of the globe, from Pacific islands, to South American countries, to yes, the Middle East.

Those left in nations highly affected by climate change, especially nations that were still in the process of developing, will be left without much recourse. Resources will be scarcer as the dry seasons get drier, and the wet seasons get wetter. Existing governments will be stressed to breaking points. How can I be sure? We’ve already seen it. A 2006 drought in Syria pushed farmers into urban centers searching for opportunity. When they didn’t find it, the lack of hope and restlessness that followed helped spark the uprisings that lead to the Syrian civil war. Droughts and the damaging of aquifers in Iraq, coupled with weak governance since 2003 has lead to an increase in feudalism and warring clans.

The conflicts won’t just be internal, either. Turkey began building dams and hydropower generators in the 1970’s that have decreased water flow to Syria and Iraq by 40% and 80% respectively. That, coupled with increasing desertification in those nations helped pave the way for dangerous conditions surrounding resource (read: water) control. ISIS has even used control of dams and rivers as a power-controlling method in territory they’ve taken over in Mosul, Haditha, Falluja, etc. It’s a dystopian take on the NBC show Heroes, “Control the water, control the world.”

Global stability, and by extension, American national security, depends on the ability for people around the world to sustain themselves where they are by growing their own crops and having easy access to water. Otherwise, weak governments could be toppled, and nation by nation, each stronger than the last to fall, the world could descend into a winner-take-all resource grab.


Anyone who questions the economic effects of climate change need only look to New Orleans. While no singular weather event can be traced to global climate change, storms like Hurricane Katrina, which NOAA estimates did $151 Billion (yes, with a B) in damage to nine US States – but had the strongest effect in Louisiana. Over 200,000 people, citizens of the richest country in the world, were permanently displaced because of the effects of the storm. Superstorm Sandy cost the Northeastern United States an estimated $65 Billion, made over 650,000 people homeless, and destroyed hundreds of thousands of businesses.

While it’s impossible to directly draw causation for a single weather event, it is however possible to say that extreme weather events such as Hurricane Katrina will be more severe, and more frequent. How many more catastrophically disruptive events, like Superstorm Sandy or Hurricane Katrina can our economy handle? Much less a country with less infrastructure and fewer resources to pour into areas devastated by these effects?

Even discounting one-time, freak weather events such as these, climate change has the ability to drastically affect America’s economic power. Take for example agriculture sector, which contributed $992 Billion dollars to the US economy in 2015. Meanwhile, the drought in California cost the state’s farms an estimated $1.8 Billion in revenue, and early blossoming of Michigan’s cherry trees (we care a LOT about those) due to an overly warm winter cost the state $220 million. That same winter, and a few others since, cost Michigan’s winter tourism industry, which contributed roughly $4 Billion in travel spending in 2011, down to $3.3 Billion in 2015.

These economic impacts, unlike those created by single events, have the devastating effects of being chronic problems. New Orleans was desolated by Katrina, but the silver lining was in the efforts to rebuild. Jobs were created, infrastructure was repaired and improved. Homelessness is actually below 2004/pre-Katrina (how they measure time and progress in that city) levels. The same cannot be said for industries taken to town by drought, monsoon, or other long-term weather effects globally. As environmental conditions cause economic downturns for months, years, or even decades at a time, regional and national economies all over the world will have to change to cope. Farmers will have to move off of land that no longer supports crops, or change the crops they grow if possible. Workers — like those in tourism industries — will have to leave in order to survive. This won’t just affect Michigan, or the United States, but seemingly every country in some manner or another.

Losing significant population in a short time can be devastating to a region’s economy, ask Puerto Rico, where mass emigration has caused hospitals and health systems to teeter on the brink of collapse. Loss of population makes existing problems worse, and creates new problems leaders can struggle to solve. This further increases instability, which destabilizes and decreases economic activity. A death spiral if ever there was one. Further, as displaced workers flee into urban centers or other regions searching for work, the economic resources of those regions are stressed. While often the effects are short term, and migrants often have long term benefits, fragile economies are especially at risk of fracturing or collapsing completely under the pressure of climate refugees, exacerbating longstanding problems, leading to instability, and taking us back to the national security section of this post.


The largest refugee crisis in human history is just beginning. Climate refugees are going to nearly outnumber the population of Western Europe if we don’t act. It’s not about saving the polar ice caps, or the coral reefs (well, it is… but it’s not just about that). It’s about saving ourselves. Saving ourselves from the economic devastation of moving 200,000,000 people to new homes, about saving ourselves from intervening in wars fought over the most basic resource in the world; water. It’s about saving ourselves from ourselves.

We can pay to fight climate change now, investing in green infrastructure, creating green-energy and green-energy jobs, and save our national treasures and natural resources. Or, we can wait and see what the world looks like with a few thousand less islands, and a few hundred million more refugees. It’s our choice.

Roger Durling is currently a senior at “That School Up North.” Roger’s interests center on international politics and the American legal system. Politically, he is more of a democrat than you are. When not guest writing for the Finest Bagels Blog, Roger enjoys plunging pins into his Ohio State voodoo doll, taking practice LSATs, and filling out applications to law schools.

2 thoughts on “The Coming Storm: Climate Change Refugees

  1. I for one agree with you. Unfortunately a lot of people in the United States (can’t speak for counties I don’t live in) either don’t believe it’s happening or think it is something not affected by man. So when Bangladesh goes under with flooding and storm surges it will be India and Myanmar with millions streaming over the borders. Americans will look on and say “No refugees.” Only when American coastal cities begin to go under and the “heartland” is flooded with refugees will reality be faced. It takes no great sophistication to know the people of the coasts are almost as foreign to the middle as Syrians and Iraqis. It will be interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

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