Hurricane Maria

Increasing Global Temperatures: What Happens Next? Our Executive Director Delivers a Message at Lafayette College

The impacts of climate change on coastal communities, resource distribution, and social and economic stability around the globe aren’t a future or speculative threat; they are real, and they are happening now. One of the most illuminating events—one that can provide us with volumes of tangible and intangible information about the threats we face—happens to be unfolding right now, in real time, in Puerto Rico.

The hurricane that struck Puerto Rico over the summer may have been just one of the season’s devastating storms, and of course Maria provided further evidence that as the planet warms, such storms are likely to increase in force and fury. But this specific storm also presents the global community with some insight into how humans are likely to react to such events in the future, how power grids, local economies, social structures, and even mental health may fall under the shadow of a changing planet.

Inder Comar, our executive director, gave a talk this past week at Lafayette College, and within the text of this short speech, he explains how hurricane Maria and its aftermath point us forward into an uncertain future. The climate is changing at a rate that is not yet under our control, and as the details of the Paris Agreement reveal, a temperature increase of two degrees will mark the point at which these changes are likely to slip free from our grasp altogether. Our best hope is to determine a course of action and implement that action before this “point of no return” is reached.

But of course, before we get there, several things must take place: Scientists and their findings must be understood and respected. The right questions must be posed. What exactly can we do? How can we change our output of waste and carbon emissions before it’s too late? And how can we shape global cultures and economies to level the playing field and protect marginalized communities that stand in the direct path of destruction? These are the communities that will be—and already are—our first wave of “climate refugees”, and their ranks are expected to increase dramatically over the next few decades as people leave their homes and cross their borders to seek shelter and resources that have become unavailable in their current locations. By the middle of the current century, this population may rise as high as two billion (for perspective, there are just over seven billion people on earth today). Where will they go, and how will the rest of the world accommodate them?

Inder’s words are difficult to hear, but they describe a connected world of real people, real-time events, real places under threat, and real needs that must be addressed and that are larger than any single lecture or any single set of data points. No matter how these issues are presented and regardless of how they are received, they are real, and they are upon us. It’s our task to find a place in our minds to hold this information and to process events and facts that challenge the capacity of the imagination.

It’s easy to turn away from these realities and close down, assuming that anything too large for us to handle will ultimately take care of itself. But if we face the situation with courage, we still have time to open ourselves to a grand possibility: that the events of our lifetimes may loom in significance over all other events in the course of human history. And since we’re here on earth at this moment, we can actually do something about this fact. We hold in our hands the power to save our own lives.

So why us? Why now? And most important: What should we do next?

Climate Change and Migration: How We’re Learning from Puerto Rico

Numerous studies and a growing body of real-time evidence link rising planetary temperatures to an increase in forceful and destructive weather patterns, seasonal temperature extremes, and unusually powerful storms, including hurricanes. By extension, these forceful storms are expected to bring notable changes in human behavior, specifically migration.

Where people choose to live will almost certainly be affected in future decades by the impact of hurricanes alone, and the long-term response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico will provide researchers with volumes of information that can help us understand and predict responses to future weather events.

Of course this long-term response can’t be fully examined just yet because it’s still underway, but already the patterns emerging from this storm are providing data regarding how, where and why populations shift after major weather events. Later this week we’ll talk about one of the factors with the strongest influence on post hurricane migrations—the availability of flood insurance. But regardless of access to insurance that can make people whole again after personal property loss, a complete recovery can’t take place as long as power grids and roads remain non-functional.

And once an exodus from a damaged area begins, a chain of events unfolds that can push full recovery even further out of reach. With the population reduced, an area loses its economic base. Without workers to repair roads and grids, activity slows, and as activity slows, so do schools, commerce, public services and healthcare centers. This general slowdown makes leaving an appealing option even for those who have not been affected by personal or immediate storm losses. It also creates the conditions for a slow but steady population destabilization that continues for years after the storm has passed.

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And as an exodus begins and then gains momentum, housing and services in destination areas become strained and over extended, which in turn generates an ongoing socio-economic ripple-effect with long term impact that has yet to be determined and predicted.

Researchers at the International Monetary Fund released a report in September that examined the links between extreme weather and outward migration in more than 100 countries over three decades. Petia Topalova, the IMF researcher and lead author of the report, notes a clear rise in migration resulting from an increase in weather-related disasters. Read more in Chapter 3 of the report here.

You can also find recent commentary on the issue here and here. Our Executive Director, Inder Comar, will be speaking this Thursday at Lafayette College about this issue. Reach out to us if you want to attend or learn more about the talk! And of course, tune in to our blog for more information as data becomes available and events unfold.