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Pulitzer Center Update July 1, 2015

Climate Change and the Global Diaspora: Is the World Ready?

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Buariki Village leaders and Professor Pelenise Alofa (center), in front of a newly completed rainwater tank. Image by Janice Cantieri. Kiribati, 2014.
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Washington University student fellow Janice Cantieri examines the impact of rising sea levels and...

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Imported rice and flour are staples in isolated islands as local food sources are becoming inundated. Image by Janice Cantieri. Kiribati, 2014.

President Obama's recent string of successes at the Supreme Court came to an abrupt halt when the Court denied the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Mercury and Air Toxics (MATS) regulation.

Released in April 2015, MATS was the EPA's first attempt to limit these specific toxins in power plant pollution. A National Journal update on the case reports that MATS would have cut 90 percent of mercury pollution, 88 percent of acid gas emissions and 41 percent of sulfur dioxide emissions from coal-fired plants. In a 5-4 vote the Court ruled on Monday, June 29, that the EPA should have considered the cost of such cuts in its initial plans. Because it didn't, coal-fired plants will not have to comply.

The ruling comes on the heels of an EPA report released early last week titled Climate Change in the United States: Benefits of Global Action. A New York Times article on the report underscores its major warning: by the end of the year 2100, drought and water scarcity resulting from climate change in the U.S. will cost up to $180 billion.

Arguments based on the economic incentives for taking action against climate change tend to gain more traction than moral arguments. But all sides of the climate "debate" often focus narrowly on domestic climate risks, disregarding the global nature of the issue. Policymakers turn a blind eye to the inextricability of industrial pollution in the U.S. from rising sea levels in Bangladesh or drought and crop failure in Syria.

A recent Washington Post op-ed advances an alternative lens through which to view the massive problem. In his piece, Michael B. Gerrard, director of Columbia Law School's Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, suggests both an incentive to check domestic pollution, as well as a course of action for the moment we realize we can't turn back.

Gerrard turns attention to the "tens of hundreds of millions of people" whose homes "will be under water…disappearing entirely…turning into desert…[or] melting away"—climate refugees.

He proposes that industrialized countries responsible for emitting greenhouse gases that fuel climate change should admit a proportion of climate refugees equivalent to their share of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. "None of this would be popular, but it would be fair."

Citing World Resources Institute data on contributions to cumulative CO2 emissions between 1850 and 2011, Gerrard rebukes the U.S. (27 percent), the 28 countries of the European Union (25 percent), China (11 percent), Russia (8 percent), Japan (4 percent), India (3 percent), Canada (2 percent), Mexico, Brazil and Indonesia (all at 1 percent), as the 37 countries most responsible for the state of the world's climate.

Gerrard argues that these industrial giants should open their gates to the largest numbers of climate refugees, coming from 158 countries that together have only contributed 17 percent of cumulative global CO2 emissions between 1850 and 2011.

In one such country, the island nation of Kiribati, residents are already battling the effects of increasing global temperatures. Pulitzer Center student fellow Janice Cantieri and Pulitzer Center grantee Ken Weiss report on the nation's internal displacement due to rising sea levels. More than half of Kiribati's population has already relocated from the island's shores to its capital in Tarawa.

Lauding the community's efforts to adapt, Kiribati's President Anote Tong still worries "whether it makes sense to spend resources on development for a country that will be underwater." Cantieri explains that Kiribati "must choose to allocate resources for either development projects or climate change mitigation programs, but struggles to address both."

The government strategized its 2012-2015 development plan to combat environmental issues, slow economic growth and poverty by maximizing the benefits of fisheries and marine resources and exploring the potential for seabed mining. Without sustainable design and implementation, such projects could intensify the negative effects of climate change.

Tong tells Weiss, "There was a great sense of futility, that there was nothing we can do about it, that we just have to accept our fate as it is." Tong worries about his people becoming stateless, wondering what country in the world would allow them to enter. The nation's youth are encouraged from an early age to enter a lottery to migrate to New Zealand.

Tong says countries like China and the U.S. "are achieving their development at our cost."

No matter what Kiribati achieves locally in its battle with rising sea levels, deepening food insecurity, and disappearing clean water, the countries that manufactured the conditions for the island nation's struggle are staying their course.

The largest contributor to global CO2 emissions since 1850, the U.S. has much to do with Kiribati's current state. But the U.S. played a more overt role in the devastation of other nations reeling from the effects of climate change today. Pulitzer Center grantee Dan Zak reports on the state of the Marshall Islands almost 60 years after the last of 67 U.S. atomic bombs were detonated there between 1946 and 1958.

In May 2015, Zak followed the Marshall Islands delegation to the U.N. review conference on the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty where representatives voiced alarm at the U.S. $1 trillion plan to modernize its nuclear program. The Marshallese lived and died through the radioactive fallout, some surviving only to suffer the lingering effects of radiation. In addition they now face rising sea levels, overcrowding, and decreasing natural resources. One Marshall Islands resident Alson Kelen tells Zak, "water just covers the whole place…the ship is sinking…that's one of the priorities: to figure out where these nomad people go from here."

"Climate refugees" is a relatively new term, but more people will continue to qualify as industry-heavy countries like the U.S. pander to companies suing over unfavorable cost-benefit analyses. When the time comes, will we open our doors?

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