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For the month of March 2016, average temperatures over much of central Canada exceeded the 20th-century average by more than 4 degrees Celsius. Canada was hardly unique in this regard: globally, March 2016 was the hottest March ever. Furthermore, it continued a string of 11 months in a row that set all-time temperature records.

This is climate change, no matter what definition you prefer. Alberta and Saskatchewan are as dry as a tinderbox, and the forest fire that has consumed portions of Fort McMurray appears to be unstoppable. Enormous boreal forest fires that burn throughout the summer until cold winter temperatures and snow finally dampen the flames are not unusual. But this fire’s damage to human-built infrastructure and disruption of peoples’ lives is unprecedented. Tens of thousands of Fort McMurray residents have become refugees.

Further north in the Arctic, polar bears seem to get the most attention with regard to climate change, but people there are also experiencing its impacts. Astounding rates of erosion — as much as 6.3 metres per year — are occurring on parts of the coastline when softer soils are exposed by permafrost melting. According to the Arctic Council’s Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, “Coastal erosion due to sea-ice decline, sea-level rise, and thawing permafrost is very likely to force the relocation of some villages and create increasing stress on others.”  

The Arctic Council report cites the case of the Alaskan village of Nelson Lagoon, where “residents have built increasingly strong break walls along the shore, only to see them destroyed by increasingly violent coastal storms.” Warming has meant loss of shore ice that formerly protected the shoreline from winter storm wave action. The village’s break walls, designed as back-up for the protective buffer provided by the shore ice, cannot withstand the full force of the waves.

Erosion is also a serious problem in Tuktoyaktuk, the major port in the western Canadian Arctic and the only permanent settlement on the Beaufort Sea coast. Here too, shoreline protection structures are being been destroyed by storm surges and waves. This has forced the abandonment of an elementary school, housing and other buildings. The Arctic Council warns that shoreline protection at Tuktoyaktuk may become unaffordable and the site could become uninhabitable.

Canada is only one of many countries dealing with climate refugees. South Pacific island nations are steadily being inundated by rising seas. Five of the Solomon Islands, a nation made up of hundreds of islands and with a population of about 640,000, have completely disappeared. While those five islands were uninhabited, entire villages on parts of two other islands have been destroyed and people forced to relocate.

The Marshall Islands are experiencing similar effects of sea-level rise. Residents of this nation, having been occupied by the United States during the Second World War and hosting U.S. nuclear tests during the Cold War, are now entitled to emigrate to the United States. Most would prefer to remain, but the costs of artificial barriers to keep out the ocean may soon be unaffordable.

Tony deBrum, foreign minister of the Marshall Islands, travelled to the December 2015 Paris Climate Conference to share the story of his people and strengthen the resolve of other world leaders to take effective action against climate change. Not all were sympathetic. India’s environment minister Prakash Javadekar is reported to have said, “So what?”

India itself is now experiencing a climate refugee crisis. According to a story in The Globe and Mail, on May 19, residents of the city of Phalodi in the state of Rajasthan experienced India’s highest temperature ever: 51 degrees Celsius. During this ongoing heat wave: “Hundreds of farmers are reported to have killed themselves across the country and tens of thousands of small farmers have been forced to abandon their farmland and live in squalor in urban slums in order to earn a living.”

Massive climate dislocations of rural inhabitants have implications for global security. A 2015 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science concluded that a 2007-2010 drought had a major impact on the conflict in Syria: “It was the worst drought in the instrumental record, causing widespread crop failure and a mass migration of farming families to urban centres.”

Some journalists have been quick to point out that neither the Syrian drought, nor any other individual drought, can conclusively be attributed to human-caused climate change. Yet there is overwhelming scientific consensus that climate change increases the likelihood of droughts, severe storms, and other extreme climate events; and that such events are occurring with increasing frequency.  

As the refugee crisis in Europe continues, commentators are urging that climate change be addressed in conversations about its causes and solutions. This seems wise. As the number of climate refugees continues to grow, the connection between global security, human well-being, and climate change becomes ever more evident.

Ole Hendrickson is a retired forest ecologist and a founding member of the Ottawa River Institute, a non-profit charitable organization based in the Ottawa Valley.

Photo: Premier of Alberta/flickr

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Ole Hendrickson

Ole Hendrickson

Ole Hendrickson is an ecologist, a former federal research scientist, and chair of the Sierra Club Canada Foundation's national conservation committee.