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Climate Fears Are Driving 'Ecomigration' Across Globe

By Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 23, 2009

Adam Fier recently sold his home, got rid of his car and pulled his twin 6-year-old girls out of elementary school in Montgomery County. He and his wife packed the family's belongings and moved to New Zealand -- a place they had never visited or seen before, and where they have no family or professional connections. Among the top reasons: global warming.

Halfway around the world, the president of Kiribati, a Pacific nation of low-lying islands, said last week that his country is exploring ways to move all its 100,000 citizens to a new homeland because of fears that a steadily rising ocean will make the islands uninhabitable.

The two men are at contrasting poles of a phenomenon that threatens to reshape economies, politics and cultures across the planet. By choice or necessity, millions of "ecomigrants" -- most of them poor and desperate -- are on the move in search of more habitable living space.

There were about 25 million ecomigrants in the world a little more than a decade ago, said Norman Myers, a respected British environmental researcher at Oxford University. That number is now "a good deal higher," he added. "It's plain that sea-level rise in the wake of climate change will inundate the homelands of huge numbers of people."

In Bangladesh, about 12 million to 17 million people have fled their homes in recent decades because of environmental disasters -- and the low-lying country is likely to experience more intense flooding in the future. In several countries in Africa's Sahel region, bordering the Sahara, about 10 million people have been driven to move by droughts and famines.

In the Philippines, upwards of 4 million people have moved from lowlands to highlands as a result of deforestation. And in an earlier era, about 2.5 million Americans became ecomigrants after droughts and land degradation during the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s.

President Anote Tong of Kiribati asked the international community this month to start thinking of ways to help entire nations relocate to higher ground. He called for an international fund to buy land for such mass migrations and said his nation's citizens are prepared to pay for a new homeland. Many citizens of Kiribati are attempting to migrate to New Zealand, and Tong said he is arming his people with skills in vocations such as plumbing that would be valuable in other countries.

A variety of forecasts suggest that environmental disasters are likely to grow in number and intensity in coming decades. Conflicts and war often follow migrations of large numbers of people across international borders. But as the Fier family shows, ecomigration is not just the province of the desperate -- or a phenomenon that involves only people in faraway lands.

"The guy who moves from here to New Zealand is no different than the guy who moves from the lowland in the Philippines to the highland, or from El Salvador to Honduras," said Rafael Reuveny, a political economist who studies ecomigration at Indiana University at Bloomington. "Down the road, probably sooner than we think, we are facing major environmental changes. These changes have started to occur and are moving relatively slowly, but the pace of change will accelerate in our lifetime."

Fier, 38, a computer security professional who used to work at NASA, said he thought hard about the risks of global climate change. He knew moving to a new country would be difficult but thought that the dangers of staying in the United States were worse. Several years ago, he drew up a list of countries and studied how they might fare over the next century. He examined their environmental policies, access to natural resources and whether they would be safe from conflict. He decided that New Zealand would offer a comparable quality of life, has an excellent environmental record and is isolated from global conflicts by large tracts of the Pacific Ocean. Its tropical, subtropical, temperate and arctic zones also offer a variety of "bioenvironments" as a hedge against the vagaries of climate change.

New Zealand's environmental credentials are no secret: Nearly half of all skilled migrants to the country cite its "climate or the clean, green environment to be a main reason" for moving there, according to a survey conducted by the nation's Department of Labor.

Although the nation of 4.3 million produces only one-fifth of 1 percent of the world's greenhouse gases, it is ramping up production of energy from renewable sources, said Roy Ferguson, New Zealand's ambassador to the United States.

"I am not going to predict how the climate might change and how it might affect New Zealand," Fier said. "But quite honestly, I feel in 100 years, one of my daughters is still going to be alive and this planet is going to be a mess. If I didn't have two daughters, I would not be doing this."

There are lots of reasons Fier might be wrong. Broad prediction is notoriously difficult, and humans have long proved adept at devising technological solutions for major problems.

But he argued that people who do nothing in the face of risk are the ones who are being irrational: If even a fraction of the consequences of global climate change that scientists are forecasting come true, disasters such as Hurricane Katrina might become the norm, not the exception. In a world afflicted by overpopulation and environmental degradation, he asked, is the irrational person the one who acts or the one who says the future will look after itself?

"This is an absolutely rational way to do things," agreed Reuveny, who moved from Israel to Indiana with an eye on environmental concerns. "When it comes to climate change, we tend to forget about it being better to be safe than sorry and say it is not going to be a problem."

"I would not deny that more than once, a thought has gone through my mind on the fourth floor in my office, when everything is green and tranquil and the sky is blue and everything is clean, and I say, 'Yeah, it is different than the Middle East,' " Reuveny said. "Do I want to go back and live in a little town in Israel, where everything is yellow and dry and there are only three months of rain a year and there is pollution?"

Within the United States, regions that are vulnerable to hurricanes appear to be producing the greatest number of domestic ecomigrants.

Lynn Lightfoot was briefly displaced from New Orleans ahead of Katrina, but the hurricane did not do much damage to her law practice. The general devastation, however, prompted her to look for a new life elsewhere -- she knew that Katrina would not be the last storm. Within weeks, she had a job offer in northern Louisiana.

"I laughed at it because I had never been to Shreveport -- it is a different cultural world from the unique culture of New Orleans," she said. But she took the job as an assistant state attorney general.

Last year, New Orleans was ordered to evacuate ahead of Hurricane Gustav. "Viewing all of that on TV and reading about it online and seeing images of this impending doom, I was very happy that I had made the decision not to return to New Orleans," Lightfoot said.

Thomas Hoff, 50, of Lakeland, Fla., may soon be an ecomigrant. He said he has come to regret moving to the Sunshine State from Michigan a quarter-century ago and is exploring his options.

"The snow is looking better every cotton-picking hurricane that comes through now," Hoff said. "I am constantly watching the tropics every hurricane season. You don't know what is going to happen."

"The risks have gotten worse in recent years because of global warming," Hoff said, adding that even if a hurricane does not hurt him in the next few years, the rising cost of hurricane insurance will. "I have watched movies like "The Day After Tomorrow," when the Earth has a deep freeze that suddenly comes over and there are these giant tidal waves -- I don't think they are so far-fetched."

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