There’s no place like home (for now)

The number of people who still aren’t worried about climate change — or the number of voters willing to elect someone who feels that way, which is pretty much the same thing — is still depressingly high. But many others have long since moved on to the practical issues of how to respond to the consequent ecological disruption. This category includes scientists, artists, captains of industry, and those who are actually charged with dealing with the myriad problems involved.

They all seem to be coming to the same conclusion: humans would rather stay at home and adapt rather than move to safer territory. Not exactly the most draw-dropping of findings, I know. But how realistic is it?


PHOTO: Nature Climate Change
(DOI: 10.1038/NCLIMATE3344)

A new paper in Nature Climate Change takes what could be considered a peek into the future by examining the response of the inhabitants of several small low-lying islands in the Philippines to the kind of inundation that rising sea levels are expected to bring. “Small-island communities in the Philippines prefer local measures to relocation in response to sea-level rise” uses the recent case of earthquake-generated subsidence on four islands on a barrier reef off the north coast of the major island of Bohol to see what people will do when faced with the choice of becoming climate refugees or toughing it out a home. “In doing so, the study will also challenge the notion that sea-level rise directly leads to migration,” write Laurice Jamero and her co-authors.

The islanders, mostly subsistence or artisan fishers, wouldn’t have had to move too far if they chose relocation. You can see Bohol from some of their homes, and there’s a good chance at least some of them could continue to pursue their livelihood even after relocation. I spent a couple of weeks in the region back in 2003, and am familiar with the communities in question, which is why this paper tweaked my interest. Even with water lapping at their doors (see image above), they chose to adapt. Why? Considering how different island life is to that of the nearby larger cities like Cebu, their decision isn’t hard to understand. The paper dances around the answer:

This paradox indicates that, more than environmental factors (that is, degree of flooding severity), the decision to relocate is influenced by social factors, such as the level of human adaptation strategies and the determination of communities to remain in their islands to secure their fishing-based livelihoods. It also therefore refutes the assumption of the mass migration theory that sea-level rise alone could directly lead to relocation. However, it remains to be seen whether there are social limits to adaptation by island communities, what the limiting factors might be (if any), and how these could be overcome.

In other words, people are homebodies.

Of course, things might be different if the seas were understood to keep rising. The strategies they used to adapt to a relatively modest increase (between 20 and 43 cm), including raising their homes on stilts and their walkways on stones, proved workable in the face of a one-time change. But they would rapidly become pointless if the world’s oceans rise as fast as James Hansen and company fear they will. (We’re talking multiple meters by the end of the century.) Migration might start to look like the only reasonable option under such scenarios. Most of these islands are only a metre or two above sea level at most.

Jamero et al. then make the point that it’s a lot easier for rich communities to build much more dramatic defenses, like sea walls, than it is for subsistence fishers to do the same, implying that developed-world responses are probably going to involve even more stubborn refusals to pick up and leave.

Indeed, this is what a growing list of science fiction authors are postulating. Coincidentally, just a few days before coming across that paper, I finished reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest epic, New York 2140. The novel picks up after two pulses of ice melt from Greenland and Antarctica have pushed up the ocean surface by 15 metres or so, turning New York City into Venice. Eventually, another Sandy-sized storm looms on the horizon and, well, spoilers ensue.

The point is that Robinson’s depiction of a city populated by people who refuse to give up even in the face of nearly insurmountable odds parallels the one detailed by Jamero. I haven’t come across any decent cli-fi that is primarily concerned with migration. (Well, there is Stephen Baxter’s Flood, but that’s a wildly implausible story.)


PHOTO: Brett Duke/NOLA.com/Times-Picayune/Associated Press

Anyone anticipating that well-off Americans will be willing to become climate refugees is probably fooling themselves. Yes, it would cost untold billions to surround Manhattan with a seawall of any real use. But look what New Orleans has spent since Katrina —$15 billion — and yet “few here are confident the fixes can keep the city dry for long,” according to the Washington Post, reporting after this month’s rainfall overwhelmed the new pump network. And that was just rain; no hurricane required.

The rational response to rising sea levels would be to move away from the coast. Or least abandon communities that sit below sea level. But don’t tell that to the folks of NOLA. Or the Dutch, for that matter. Home is where the heart is. Besides, we’ve already got plenty of cause for internal migration in the form of a low unemployment rate and blue-collar jobs evaporating in the heat of automation, but few Americans are willing to go where the jobs are. This is in part because they can’t afford to live where the jobs are. So why would a migration forced, not by robots, but the loss of waterfront property, be any different?

By the way, this explains the “climate services” community emerging in Asheville, N.C., the one where private analysts use public climate data to help companies and communities make themselves more resilient to climate change. Seems there’s not a lot of money to made telling people where to go.

Not yet, anyway. But all bets are off if the worst-case scenarios start coming true. Deep roots are fine — until salt-water intrusion begins to rot them, that is.