Climate Change Refugees: Reaping the Whirlwind

Here in New England, summer is gone. We are having a perfect fall: the calendar colors, magnificent sunsets, wide night sky, and crisp temperatures. In the harbors, the boats are being down-rigged, sails off, heading for the winter yards where they endure the cold, sufferable winter.

What a summer it was. Here in Maine we had fog for much of it, followed by several weeks of intense clarity, sunshine and revolving winds. But what about the rest of the world, where the consequences of climate engendered hurricanes and wildfires, droughts and tsunamis destroyed the lands and inundated the coasts? It was a summer of extremes, blowing in the air and in from the ocean. Those of us protected from those things this year could only react with awe and admiration for the response and resilience evinced by those affected worldwide.

There is a Biblical phrase that signifies the reality of consequences for human action: They that sow the wind shall reap the whirlwind. We experienced one whirlwind after another this summer, and one wonders if it can be anymore possible not to equate the contribution of human intervention to these unnatural natural outcomes. The results are tragic, counted in the loss of human lives, community destruction, broken systems, inadequate response, and the inequitable distribution of the cost, the pain, and the loss among those who could afford it least.

Why is it that those who are the most vulnerable are made to bear the burden of bad policy, indifference, and willful governance that fails them over and over again?

Photo: Rodi Said/Reuters

What results is a measurable shift of population and finance. As an example, let’s take the people of the Virgin Islands or the people of Puerto Rico who remain still without adequate power, water, and services a year after struck by a similarly devastating storm. And then consider the irony of the most recent hurricane (Florence) hitting the southern United States coast just weeks ago. It caused the evacuation of millions, comparable destruction, and the prospect of equally prolonged restoration of home and health in a state where government had determinedly legislated against even the mention of climate change and willfully offered no plans for preparation and protection for probability predicted for years. Just how foolish is that?
Houses surrounded by floodwaters from Hurricane Florence. North Carolina. Jason Miczek/Reuters

But this is old news, sad to say. Today we see displacement everywhere: homes in California; farms in North Carolina; coastal villages in Indonesia and Japan; insects and birds changing their migration patterns; fish moving to different water; ice and permafrost melting; aquifers drying up and rivers disappearing; rains coming in torrents that defy the land to absorb, its irrational descent to the ocean taking with it topsoil, homesteads, occupations, whole towns, social stability, and optimism for the future in a mass flow that erodes the basic foundations of our living.

This displacement makes refugees of us all. Think about it: all these extreme weather events as resultant, not-so-subtle movements of people bereft of their belongings and their occupations, looking for shelter in another place that may not be prepared for or interested in their arrival. We see it in Africa, Europe and the Middle East, Asia, South and North America: climate refugees, entire societies disrupted and made to move away toward uncertainty and the unknown.

Joanne Francis on Unsplash

The most challenging, underlying social, political, and economic conflicts in the world today revolve around refugees. Where can they go? How will they survive? What will they do once they arrive at a place that will not accept them? If we are not experiencing the outcome of our willful ignorance and mindless consumption of natural resources, if we are not proving the necessity for a revolutionary shift in our values, structures, and behaviors, if we do not change our ways wherever we may be to address the causes for all this misery, then we will continue to reap the whirlwind we deserve.

Summer is gone… We enter the autumnal time, and the winter is coming.


PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio, a weekly podcast addressing ocean issues, upon which this blog is inspired.