Are Hurricanes Creating Climate Refugees In The Caribbean?

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A report by Marshall Shepherd for Forbes.

Hurricanes Irma and Maria have devastated islands throughout the northern Caribbean region. Some islands have been rendered virtually uninhabitable. This fact made me ponder the following question. Did the 2017 hurricane season stimulate the first wave of the climate refugees out of the Caribbean? Candidly, the answer to the question is “I don’t know.” However, it is a good opportunity to discuss the concept of climate refugees within the context of recent events.

I wanted to write this because I often see people incorrectly describe refugees. After Hurricane Harvey, I saw descriptions of people who fled Houston and went to Dallas or other locations as “Harvey refugees.” Merriam-Webster dictionary (and most others) describe a refugee as

a person who flees to a foreign country or power to escape danger or persecution

This definition is also very similar to the definition provided by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR)

someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence.

In the example with Hurricane Harvey,  UNHCR describes such people as internally displaced persons. They may leave their home for the same reasons that a refugee would, but the key difference is that they do not cross an international border.

With definitions established, we can now explore the concept of climate refugees. Climate refugees are forced to leave their home country because of climate or climate change related processes. Climate refugees belong to the larger class of “environmental refugees” who are forced to leave their country because of natural disasters (hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and so forth). To be fair, people that have been forced from their home countries in the Caribbean should probably be described as environmental refugees. The discussion about climate change and recent hurricane activity is in full swing. It is a conversation that needs to be had but in a nuanced manner. Some easily dismiss any linkage between the 2017 hurricane season and climate change. Others say, “of course this is the fingerprint to climate change.” 

We are in an era of attribution science studies, which use various methods to identify possible linkages between contemporary weather extremes and climate change. The National Academies conducted the most comprehensive study to date on attribution studies, and there is increasing confidence in the methodologies. The National Academies study, of which I served as a co-author, made recommendations for how such studies can be improved. Some consensus emerged in that study, and recent peer-reviewed literature on what we know about climate change and hurricanes. I will wait on the attribution studies for Harvey, Irma, and Maria, but as a scientist I generally see scientific evidence of increasing sea level (which affects storm surge), warmer oceans (which fuel intensity), and poleward shifts in the maximum intensity.

Ok, let’s get back to my initial question about refugees in the Caribbean islands. Antigua and Barbuda had about 97,000 residents before Hurricane Irma. A CNN report in mid-September stated that for the first time in 300 years, not a single person was living in Barbuda after the hurricane. That island was virtually destroyed. Many of the residents were evacuated to Antigua so technically they are not refugees. Antigua and Barbuda became a sovereign state of the British in 1981 so they did not leave their country.

Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit declared that 95% of the country of Dominica was destroyed by Hurricane Maria. I suspect that many of the 73,000 residents left the country and with that level of destruction, when can (or will) they go back? Other countries like Cuba, Puerto Rico and the British/U.S. Virgin Islands took massive hits from Irma and Maria as well.Some reports estimate that Puerto Rico may be without power for 4 to 6 months. Places like St. Bart, Anguilla, St. Maarten, Barbuda and Dominica are much smaller, and I am already noticing that they do not get mentioned very much in the social and broader media discussions.

It is for these reasons that I wonder if some of the residents will ever return.  Maria Cristina Garcia is the author of the book, Climate Refugees: The Environmental Origins of Refugee Migrations. In a Cornell University media release, Garcia stated

People have been displaced by climate for millennia…but we are now at a particular historical moment, facing a new type of environmentally driven migration that will be more fast and furious. It will require incredible adaptability and political will to keep up with the changes that are forecasted to happen…..

Garcia is also concerned because climate refugees (displaced due to sea level rise, loss of agricultural productivity, storm-related destruction) would not fall under the current legal designations for refugees. U.S. law bases refugee status on persecution related to religion, race, political viewpoint, or nationality. Other international laws are similar and provide no protection.

A crew member on board the USS George Washington carrier signals to an approaching Osprey aircraft near Eastern Samar, the Philippines, on Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013. Super Typhoon Haiyan slammed into the central Philippines on Nov. 8, knocking down most buildings, killing thousands, displacing 4 million people and affecting more than 10 million. Photographer: Julian Abram Wainwright/Bloomberg

The U.S. military is also concerned about climate refugees. A 2011 National Academies study commissioned by the U.S. Navy discussed the various threats and political destabilization that an influx of climate refugees in certain nations would cause. Bangladesh and India may offer a glimpse of such border conflicts already. The same report also expressed concerns about U.S. military resources being stretched thin for climate-related natural disaster relief.

At the end of the day, I cannot answer the question that I’ve posed, but this conversation needs to be had. My thoughts are with all of the people in the Caribbean and in the Florida Keys too.