A Science Fictional Tinge to the News

Climate change refugees. How’s that for a frightening thought?

It’s not like the world doesn’t already have plenty of refugees fleeing from war. Or a not inconsiderable number of people who might be considered economic refugees — people immigrating legally and illegally in search of a decent standard of living.

But climate change refugees? People who have to find someplace else to live because their home is no longer habitable because the climate is changing? Sounds kind of like science fiction.

The PBS program Now had an update April 3 on the multi-island nation of Kiribati, which is literally sinking into the Pacific Ocean.

And the minute they introduced the show, I thought of Kim Stanley Robinson’s series of novels that begins with Forty Signs of Rain. Some of the main characters in those books are Tibetan monks who resettled on an island off India after being forced out of Tibet. Their island is sinking into the ocean.

(Robinson floods Washington, D.C., in the first book. I was still living in Washington when I read it and the flood scenario was so real that I spent the entire book being grateful that I lived on one of the highest points of land in the city.)

Then there’s Gwyneth Jones’s series that begins with Bold as Love (free pdf here). Among the many disasters in that amazing series is a flotilla of climate change and economic refugees trying to land in an England that has more that it can handle already. Economic disaster — something like what’s going on right now — also plays a major part in those books.

The Now show mentioned that a few Kiribati have resettled in New Zealand, thanks to a company that offered them work. But few countries are open to climate change refugees. The president of Kiribati is looking into buying property abroad for his people.

Kiribati has about 100,000 people — not too many to relocate if countries were willing to do so. That’s the humane response. Of course, many of the people are angry about the loss of their country and heritage, and who can blame them? It’s not like they’re big contributors to global warming.

But the people who need help aren’t just the 100,000 in Kiribati. According to the Now program, experts expect millions of people will become climate change refugees in the foreseeable future.

You only have to look at the U.S. response to Katrina — a crisis in our own country involving our own people — to know just how difficult it’s going to be to get people who aren’t suffering directly from climate change to take in those who are.

We’d all prefer not to think about these things. Daily life is hard enough, especially when the economy is tanking worldwide.

But we are going to have to face not just climate change, but the fact that it’s going to cause a lot of other related problems, like refugees. And while it’s tempting to just try to find a place that’s not likely to suffer too bad from the changes and move there together with our loved ones and some serious weaponry to keep out the riff-raff, that’s not a very honorable or decent response.

I suggest reading science fiction dealing with the issue, not because it’s going to predict the actual state of affairs or pose a perfect solution, and certainly not for escape, but because it’s going to make you think about the problem creatively. That’s the fiction part of science fiction, the part that adds imagination to what faces us today, the part that asks “what if.”

We need to think a lot about “what if” if we’re going to deal with the problems facing us today.

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Nancy Jane’s story this week is “Survival Skills,” which is short, but not quite short enough for flash fiction. Her collection Conscientious Inconsistencies is available from PS Publishing and her novella Changeling can be ordered from Aqueduct Press.

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A Science Fictional Tinge to the News — 5 Comments

  1. There are plenty of empty places in the world in which to park people. (I am thinking of North Dakota, or the Russian steppes.) The problem is that there is nothing to do there and no way to make a living — that is of course why such places are not heavily populated right now. All the places where it is fun to live (California coast?) or comparatively easy to get a job (DC?) are already occupied by inhospitable natives armed with high real estate prices. So the core problem is not geography — it is economic.

  2. Hey, west Texas and Death Valley in California are also areas of the USA where “refugees” could go . . . that is if they enjoy the sun, wind, and HEAT! Oh, I forgot; these refugees are fleeing from global warming! Ooops, am I bad? For the record, global warming and global cooling are climate changes that have happened and will happen again . . . whether or not humans exist.

    If any rabid environmentalists would like to discuss this issue with me, then please answer and explain this question first: Exactly how were humans able to cause and bring to an end the “Little Ice Age” in the Middle Ages?”

    Good article that is very interesting.

  3. Of course, the people in Kiribati aren’t fleeing heat; they will need to leave because the ocean is rising and their islands will soon be under water.

    Climate change will certainly make some places hotter — like the Arctic. This might sound good, except that the ecology of the Arctic is built on its climate; change it, and you undermine a great deal. Not to mention that the melting ice caps cause the oceans to rise (see Kiribati).

    It will also make some places colder — you might read the second book of Robinson’s trilogy for an example of Washington, DC, caught in an extreme winter. I’ve heard him speak on the subject, and he’s researched the subject thoroughly.

    As for West Texas and Death Valley and other arid and semi-arid climates, the problem there isn’t heat — though it certainly gets hot there — it’s water. There isn’t enough water in those locations to maintain a larger population. And drought in the southwest is only likely to get worse.

    The fact that climate also changes without human action doesn’t refute the fact that we’re having a profound effect on the planet right now. Of course climate changes for other reasons; the Earth is a complex ecosystem and there are many factors that affect climate.

    And the fact that the Earth currently has 6.5 billion people (and is projected to have 9.5 billion by mid-century), many of whom live along those coastlines that are will be dramatically affected by rising ocean levels, complicates the matter further. Up until the mid-19th Century there were fewer than a billion people on the planet, and even as late as 1950 there were only 2.5 billion. If we make large sections of the Earth uninhabitable, where are we going to put all those people?

  4. So far in the DC area it is not getting colder. In fact there is a gradual bot noticeable warming — the last frost date comes earlier in the spring, and frost holds off later into October. We see more southern birds and warmer-weather plants; people are successfully raising banana, sago palm and other hot-weather plants in their yards.
    (This year I planted potatoes, just to see what would happen. So far, zip. I may have missed the climate window; I should have planted them forty years ago.)

  5. Actually, I think the real effect of human-caused climate change in many places will be to increase the volatility and unpredictability of weather. In 40 Signs of Rain and its sequels, DC goes from flooded to very cold to steamy, as I recall.