A coastal village of 700 residents in the UK has been declared the first place on earth that may produce climate refugees, as the community has been identified for a high risk of permanent flooding.
The British town of Fairborne, Wales, maybe the first but not the last, to be threatened by rising sea levels, with its inhabitants becoming climate refugees.
If all the glaciers and ice caps on the planet melted, the global sea level would rise by about 230 feet. That amount of water would flood nearly every coastal city around the world.
Greece Could also Produce Climate Refugees
Climate change models created by Climate Central, an independent organization of top scientists and journalists, show the devastation that rising sea levels could cause on coastal cities, including those in Greece, such as Piraeus and Thessaloniki.
The models were created based on the findings of a peer-reviewed research paper written by scientists from Climate Central in collaboration with researchers from Princeton University and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany.
Rising temperatures, melting Arctic ice, drought, desertification and other catastrophic effects of climate change are the reality today. Where would you go if, say, a flood devastated the city you live in?
In 2017, 68.5 million people across the world were displaced — more than at any point in human history, according to the Brookings Institute. Almost 25 million were uprooted by sudden weather events, including floods, forest fires and intense storms.
Officials from Fairborne headed to the COP 26 summit in Glasgow this past week to seek solutions for the future of their community.
Catrin Wager, a cabinet member of Gwynedd Council, the local authority overseeing Fairbourne, stressed that while the village might be the first Welsh coastal village to be designated as unviable due to climate change, it certainly won’t be the only one. There’s no precedent for how to develop policies for helping the villagers adapt, Wager stated.
“We need more answers from the Welsh and UK governments, that’s my message” going into the Cop 26 summit, Wager said. “We really need to get some guidance on not only mitigating the effects of climate change, but about how we adapt for things that are already happening.”
More than one billion people will live in countries with insufficient infrastructure to withstand climate change by 2050. The Pacific Islands are expected to be affected especially hard. Sea levels there are already rising at almost 0.5 inches per year. Eight uninhabited islands in Micronesia have already been submerged and two more are close to vanishing.
By the year 2100, experts fear 48 islands in the Pacific will be completely underwater.
Britain’s government, which is hosting the U.N. climate summit, needs to be much more upfront about such risks, said Richard Dawson, a member of the committee and a professor of engineering at Newcastle University.
According to Dawson, decisions need to be made about many coastal settlements with disproportionately high numbers of older and poorer residents. Officials need to prepare people for moving inland.
COP Needs to Take Action
“Whatever happens at COP26, the sea level will continue to rise around the UK, that’s something we absolutely need to prepare for,” Dawson stated. “We have to be realistic. We can’t afford to protect everywhere. The challenge for government is that the problem is not being confronted with the urgency or openness that we need.”
In 2014 authorities identified Fairbourne as the first coastal community in the UK to be at high risk of flooding due to climate change. Predicting faster sea level rises and more frequent and extreme storms due to global warming, the government said it could only afford to keep defending the village for another 40 years. Officials said that by 2054, it would no longer by safe or sustainable to live in Fairbourne.
Natural Resources Wales, the government-sponsored organization responsible for the sea defenses in the Welsh village, said the community is particularly vulnerable because it faces multiple flooding risks. Built in the 1850s on a low-lying salt marsh, Fairbourne already lies beneath sea level at high spring tide. During storms, the tidal level is already more than five feet above the level of the village.
Scientists say UK sea levels have risen about four inches in the past century. Depending on greenhouse gas emissions and actions that governments take, the predicted rise is 27 to 40 inches by 2100.
At the eastern end of Europe, Greece’s extensive coastline makes the nation extremely vulnerable to the rising sea levels, while the amount of rainfall in the country could be up to nine percent less, according to Professor Athanasios Argyriou of the University of Patras physics department. Greece could also generate climate refugees.
Argyriou stated that with sea levels predicted to rise from eight to eighty inches, many areas on Greece’s coast will be directly affected, while temperatures will increase by six to nine degrees Fahrenheit, rainfall will be five to nine percent less and the intensity of both the sun and the winds will be stronger.
According to the physics professor, the last two factors could help the country increase its production of solar and wind energy. This will be offset by indirect deleterious effects on agriculture, tourism, transport and health, with the climate becoming more favorable for disease vectors, such as mosquitoes and parasites.
Regarding climate refugees, Argyriou discussed what must occur when entire communities become displaced because their residences have been destroyed due to flood or fire.
Efforts to protect human lives and property should primarily concentrate on policies to reduce the causes of climate change, Argyriou noted. “On the one hand, there must be an immediate implementation of these policies on a national level while, on the other hand, Greece must exert political pressure through international organizations for the strict implementation of environmental protection policies.”
According to Argyriou, smart climate management “can be done by developing services and increasing the number of scientists involved in meteorology, since climate is the first step for creating smart-climate societies.” He added that the quality of the weather data in many countries did not permit the advanced climate services needed to take political decisions and to organize the actions of various agencies.
Since the 2014 announcement on not being able to sustain the Welsh village, house prices in Fairbourne have nosedived. Dubbed the UK’s first potential climate refugees, many were left shocked and angry by national headlines declaring their whole village would be “decommissioned.” Seven years on, most of their questions about their future remain unanswered.
No one in Fairborne wants to leave, whether they eventually become climate refugees or not. While many are retirees, there are also young families raising the next generation. Locals speak proudly of their tight-knit community. And although the village center only consists of a grocery store, a fish and chip shop and a few restaurants, residents say the long beach and a small steam-powered train draw bustling crowds of tourists in the summer.
“They’ve doomed the village, and now they’ve got to try to rehome the people. That’s 450 houses,” stated Stuart Eves, who serves as chair of the local community council. “If they want us out by 2054, then they’ve got to have the accommodation to put us in.”
Eves decided the coastal village in northern Wales would be home for life when he moved to what is today ground zero for climate change 26 years ago. He fell in love with the peaceful, slow pace of small village life in this community nestled between the rugged mountains and the Irish Sea.
Other communities who see their sinking cities and eroding coastlines eventually making residents climate refugees brought a graphic image to COP 26 this week.
The Pacific nation of Tuvalu’s foreign minister addressed the United Nations climate conference in Glasgow standing knee-deep in seawater to show how his low-lying island nation is on the frontline of the climate crisis.
The video of Simon Kofe standing in a suit and tie at a lectern set up in the sea while delivering his speech draws attention to Tuvalu’s struggle against rising sea levels.
“We will not stand idly by as the water rises around us. We are not just talking in Tuvalu, we are mobilizing collective action at home, in our region, and on the international stage to secure our future,” Kofe said.
The future impact of climate change will disproportionately affect the world’s poorest but will also pressure countries around the globe through mass migration of refugees. Adaptation and resilience will be the key to reducing displacement risk — both temporary and permanent — in the forms of early warning systems and flood-defense infrastructure, sustainable agriculture and drought-resistant crops, as well as other protections.