Warming Trends: Climate Refugees, Ocean Benefits and Tropical Species Moving North

A column highlighting climate-related studies, innovations, books, cultural events and other developments from the global warming frontier.

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Residents take shelter inside a public school classroom in Tagkawayan, Philippines as typhoon Goni enters the country on Nov. 1, 2020. Super Typhoon Goni made landfall in the Philippines with wind gusts of up to 190 miles per hour. Credit: Jes Aznar/Getty Images
Residents take shelter inside a public school classroom in Tagkawayan, Philippines as typhoon Goni enters the country on Nov. 1, 2020. Super Typhoon Goni made landfall in the Philippines with wind gusts of up to 190 miles per hour. Credit: Jes Aznar/Getty Images

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Warming Trends

Natural and Climate-Related Disasters Create The Most Refugees 

Over 12 million people around the world have been pushed out of their homes in the last six months, a new report says, 80 percent of whom were displaced due to natural and climate-related disasters.

Most of these displacements occurred in Asian and Pacific countries, according to the report issued by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. The region was walloped with 26 climate disasters last year, including three storms that hit the Philippines within a month, one of which was a late-season Category 5 storm that drove at least a million people from their homes and left 3 million without basic needs.

“Repeat events mean that people are barely able to recover from being displaced by one disaster before being hit by another one, which can lead to secondary displacement,” said Helen Brunt, Asia Pacific Migration and Displacement Coordinator for the IFRC.

Displacement tends to disproportionately harm the most vulnerable populations, Brunt said. For example, sexual violence occurs more often in temporary shelters that house evacuees, and displaced people can lose identifying documents and run the risk of becoming stateless. 

“We can’t just wait and respond to disasters and displacement when they happen,” she said. “Coordinated action and greater investment to reduce displacement caused by climate disasters is urgently needed right now.”


Increasing Ocean Protections Would Bring Climate, Economic and Food Supply Benefits

Protecting certain areas of the ocean could benefit biodiversity, reduce carbon emissions and sustain fisheries vital for food security, a new study out in Nature this week shows.

Currently, about 7 percent of the ocean is designated or proposed as a marine protected area, or MPA, but only about 2.7 percent of the ocean is highly protected from destructive and unsustainable practices. This study shows which areas can be better protected to have not just environmental benefits, but economic benefits, too.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the study is the impact on carbon storage. Sediments on the ocean floor are the largest sector of carbon storage, the study reports. But if these sediments are disturbed, as happens with fishing nets or dredging, the carbon gets stirred up and can be converted to carbon dioxide, accelerating ocean acidification and potentially emitting the planet-warming gas into the atmosphere. Researchers say the emissions from these activities could be as significant as the emissions from the aviation sector.

Protecting areas for carbon sequestration would also benefit fisheries. By preserving some areas of the ocean, fish populations rebound and migrate into areas where fishing is allowed, increasing productivity of fisheries and food security while also protecting species diversity. The study reports 90 percent of the potential biodiversity benefits of MPAs could be achieved by protecting 21 percent of the ocean and preserving 28 percent could increase ocean production of food by nearly 6 million metric tons. 

“By and large, the world has been protecting places that were reasonably easy to protect, so far away places, often uninhabited,” said study co-author Boris Worm of the Ocean Frontier Institute in Nova Scotia. “What we show in this paper is if you want to solve the problems of biodiversity loss and food insecurity and climate change, you have to move to the places that are important to people and protect those.”

Some of the areas that would maximize all three benefits include the coasts of China, western Africa and parts of Europe.

“A lot of areas in the world are called protected areas, but aren’t actually well protected,” Worm said. “By actually protecting an area that’s already there, if it’s in the right place, it will unlock these double and triple benefits.”


A New Book Focuses on Climate Solutions for Ordinary People

In a global crisis as daunting as climate change, individual actions can feel futile and rising to the challenge can be more discouraging than empowering. A new book from climate scientist Kimberly Nicholas aims to set readers on a manageable path toward action.

Under the Sky We Make, which will go on sale on Tuesday, explains the climate problem and what can be done to fix it. Inside Climate News discussed the new book with Nicholas. This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Something I see in a lot of climate action books is the debate between the need for systemic change and urging for individual action. How does your story balance this?

I try to make really clear who it is that needs to take personal climate action. It’s people like me, meaning people who have a relatively high income and therefore high emissions. Globally, if you have an income over $38,000, you’re in the top 10 percent of household climate polluters and in the U.S., that trend is magnified. So households that earn in the top 10 percent in the U.S. are extremely carbon polluting.

You focus on the power of ordinary people in this book over scientists, politicians and tech gurus. Tell me about that and why you chose that route.

I have this privileged position as a climate scientist. For example, I was in the room when the Paris agreement was adopted. But I felt like these conversations weren’t getting out to where they needed to go. They were staying in these rooms of scientific conferences or high level political negotiations and they weren’t getting translated into the decisions people make at the dining room table or the boardroom table or in communities and neighborhoods. I felt like that was a gap I wanted to help try to close.

Are you someone who is generally hopeful or pessimistic about the future? 

I think all climate scientists have a complicated relationship with hope. I think people ask this question a lot as a proxy for, “Are we screwed, are we too late, can I give up?” and the answer to that is no, it’s not too late, we can stabilize the climate and avoid catastrophic climate change.

Science gives us reasons for hope, because we know what we need to do, we know what works to get it done, and it kind of comes down to what you believe about human nature and what you do to make that possible in your sphere of influence. I think it’s a mistake to feel that you need hope before you do that.


More Climate Solutions in a Free, Online Course

Want to take a course in climate solutions? Now you can—for free—online.

Project Drawdown, a nonprofit climate solutions organization, unveiled its six-part Climate Solutions 101 course this week, giving teachers, community groups and ordinary people access to key, achievable solutions to address climate change. 

Each unit includes a lecture, conversations with experts in the climate field, graphics and additional readings. The course is open to anyone, but these resources are designed with educators in mind. 

“We really are looking toward a cultural shift,” Drawdown Learn director Elizabeth Bagley said. “Educators are one group that has the potential to shift culture, to change and influence the ways in which people are approaching a really thorny, wicked problem like climate change, and instead of approaching it with fear and hopelessness, approaching it with a sense of curiosity and opportunity.”

Bagley said her organization found there were plenty of resources available to learn about the problems of climate change, but there was a gap in information when it came to solutions. The course dives into what solutions are available and what needs to be done to keep the worst of global warming at bay.

“All the solutions we looked at, we have in our hands today, we just have to scale them,” Bagley said. “So getting solutions into people’s hands as quickly, safely and equitably as possible is the most important thing for us.”


Fewer Cold Snaps Will Allow More Tropical Species to Migrate to the Southern US

The southern United States will become more tropical as the climate changes, with species like mangroves, manatees and sea turtles migrating north, a U.S. Geological Survey study shows.

That’s because there will be fewer cold snaps, like the one that occured in Texas last month. These once-in-a-generation deep freezes in states like Florida, Mississippi, Arizona and California kill off tropical species that have moved north while temperate species survive. 

“These extreme events control species’ northern limits,” said study co-author Michael Osland, a USGS research ecologist with the Wetland and Aquatic Research Center in Louisiana. “With climate change and a decrease in the frequency and intensity of these events, it allows these plant and animal species to move north and tropicalize the temperate ecosystems that are north of their current regions.”

Though this may seem like good news for a threatened species like the manatee or for coastal communities that spreading mangroves could protect from storm surges, other species can devastate ecosystems if they are allowed to migrate north. For example, the Burmese python, a non-native species that has proliferated in Florida after pet owners released their snakes, has been a problem for bird and mammal populations near the Everglades. Cold weather snaps can effectively kill these animals, the study says. 
“There are a lot of tropical invasive species, nonnative plants and animals that would be expected to move north,” Osland said. “If they’re allowed to move north into other southern states they would have some very, very big ecological impacts.”

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