Climate Refugees: Reaping The Whirlwind

Source: World Ocean Radio/Peter Neill

Photo: Barth Bailey/Unsplash


2018 was a summer of extremes: hurricanes, wildfires, drought, floods, heat, earthquakes, tsunami. It’s increasingly evident that human intervention is largely responsible for these natural disasters and their outcomes. In this episode of World Ocean Radio we talk about the distribution of loss, recognizing the poorest among us to be the least resilient in the face of such disasters, and most likely to be affected by them. We discuss the growing likelihood that climate change will cause increased displacement around the planet and will make refugees out of many of us. Where will we go? What will we do when we get there? How will we survive?


Welcome to World Ocean Radio…

I’m Peter Neill, Director of the World Ocean Observatory.

Here in New England, summer’s 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 yes, with 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 that desiccated the lands and inundated the coasts? It was a summer of extremes, blowing in the air and in from the ocean, and those of us protected from those things—mostly by chance—could only react with awe and admiration for the response and resilience evinced by those affected worldwide.

There is that Biblical phrase, “They that sow the wind, shall reap the whirlwind,” signifying the reality of consequence for human action. 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, made so disturbingly evident in the context of extreme weather and changing climate?

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, even two years ago after struck by similar devastating storm. And then consider the irony almost too much to bear of a most recent hurricane hitting the southern United States coast just weeks ago causing the evacuation of millions, comparable destruction, and the prospect of equally prolonged restoration of home and health in a state where the local 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?

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 change their migration patterns; fish move to different water; ice and permafrost melt; aquifers dry up and rivers disappear; rains come 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.

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

We will discuss these things, and more, in future editions of World Ocean Radio.


World Ocean Radio is brought to you in collaboration with the World Ocean Observatory. The World Ocean Observatory advocates for the ocean through independent, responsible, apolitical science, and is dedicated to advancing public understanding of ocean issues through institutional collaboration and partnerships, pro-active programs, and connection with individual subscribers around the world.

Photo: Barth Bailey/Unsplash

To view the Creative Commons license for the image, click here.