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Environment Magazine September/October 2008



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Editorial - Preparing for the Future

Climate change is already having significant impacts on ecosystems, food production systems, and peoples around the world, and these impacts will continue to intensify and spread even if we successfully limit future warming below 2°C. Thus the current and future need for adaptation must be recognized and elevated as a priority in climate change discussions.

In this issue of Environment, authors Frank Biermann and Ingrid Boas warn of the need to prepare globally to deal with mass numbers of climate refugees (“Protecting Climate Refugees: The Case for a Global Protocol”). While the ultimate size, scale, and severity of this problem are still uncertain, we do know that climate change impacts like sea-level rise are already displacing people, and the problem will most likely intensify. Quite rightly, the authors challenge us to start preparing now and propose the creation of a new global institution to manage what will be a recurrent, widespread, and complex set of mass migrations within and between countries.

As Mike Hulme notes in his commentary, however, this problem also raises profound questions of governance, power, justice, security, health, and well-being. How do institutions define a “climate refugee” amidst the complexities of both natural and human systems? How exactly does one attribute a particular migration to climate change versus the extreme events of natural variability (droughts, floods, and famines)? Individuals and communities also move for a complex set of reasons, of which changes in local climate or the experience of climate impacts are often only one dimension.

These issues are further complicated by the human dimensions of cultural identity, power relations, and the lack of knowledge among those most vulnerable. Climate impacts are likely to first manifest as a series of humanitarian crises—the cyclone sweeping into a city, the drought withering crops, the outbreak of infectious disease. As Craig Colten and his colleagues describe in their recent article in Environment (“Three Years after Katrina: Lessons for Community Resilience,” September/October 2008), after a disaster, most people want to return to their homes and reconstruct their lives. Their first response is to recreate what existed before, where it existed before. Who decides when an area must be abandoned and its inhabitants relocated? Will climate change refugees be welcomed in their new communities? While each situation is unique, we can expect that in general, any top-down decision to relocate communities will meet strong resistance.

To be effective, planned relocations will require a substantial commitment of resources, not just of personnel and money, but of time and patience to build trusted relationships based on shared dialogue between outside experts and local communities. For example, many vulnerable communities will be unwilling to move unless they really understand the threat posed by climate change. Yet recent results from the Gallup World Poll demonstrate that very large majorities of people in many of the most vulnerable countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America have never even heard of global warming or climate change.

Successful relocations will thus require significant efforts to communicate the potential severity and likelihood of climate impacts; the potential adaptation options and costs; the uncertainties involved; and facilitated decisionmaking processes sensitive to local realities of power, economics, and culture. As George Saliba and Kathy Jacobs describe in their article, “Saving the San Pedro River: Science, Collaboration, and Water Sustainability in Arizona,” building mutual understanding and trust between experts and local decisionmakers can take years, even within the context of sharing a single resource in the developed world.

Asking people to willingly leave their homelands for an uncertain future will inevitably be much, much harder—especially because many communities have deep cultural connections to specific places that define who they are as a people and have ways of life that have been carefully passed on for generations, embedded in particular landscapes. Subsistence patterns, ancestral burial grounds, community, and language are often deeply connected to the land. In this way, relocation itself presents a direct threat to self and cultural identity. The very idea of relocation often creates additional strains and divisions within communities that are already under great economic, environmental, and cultural stress.

Finally, as the articles by David Runnalls (“Our Common Inaction: Meeting the Call for Institutional Change,” page 18) and Biermann and Boas articulate, current international institutions are still too small, divided, and powerless to successfully address the twin and interlinked challenges of climate change and sustainability. As you read this, the United States will have just chosen a new president who will confront not only enormous domestic challenges, but these globally systemic threats as well. The need for renewed international leadership and fundamental institutional change has never been greater.
—Anthony A. Leiserowitz

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