Global warming and the global climate crisis continue to make headlines in news outlets: from increasing floods, to droughts and fires. By the end of the century, global temperatures are expected to increase 4C under the current trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions.
21.5 million people were displaced each year between 2008 and 2016 by some form of weather-related incident, including floods, storms, wildfires or extreme temperatures.
With some locations becoming drier with decreased rainfall patterns, and others more susceptive to being flooded, communities that were previously unaffected by natural disasters are more likely to suffer climate-related shocks in coming years.
In the Mid-Atlantic region, cities like Wilmington, Annapolis, Maryland, Sandy Hook and Atlantic City have seen a 10-fold increase in flood frequency since the 1950s, according to the EPA.
A study on the impact of climate change on European coasts estimated a 30-fold increase in damage from coastal flooding by mid-century and a 700-fold increase by the end of the century on a current path trajectory, with a $1 trillion price tag, without any future flood protection measures.
Coastal area residents, particularly in developing countries and small nation states, are increasingly more vulnerable to these calamities.
In 2015, India and China respectively had 3.7 and 3.6 million people displaced from disasters. It is expected that over 140 million people will be climate-related migrants by 2050 in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America.
Indigenous communities are increasingly exposed to sea-level rise in areas like Panama, Louisiana, and low-lying islands in Asia and the Pacific, where 80% of the world’s 370 million indigenous people live, forcing them to move farther and higher inland.
In the Guna Yala region, off the Atlantic coast of Panama, 49 Guna communities have witnessed a 15cm rise of sea level rise in recent years. It is estimated that 28,000 people in the region will need to relocate to the mainland in the coming years, not only due to sea-level rise, but also because of deteriorating coral reefs and a diminished fishing output that these communities rely on.
Rural communities in developing nations are also distressed by changing weather patterns. The Isle of Jean Charles, in Louisiana, once the only home of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe, has shrunk from 34 square miles, to less than half a square mile. The Biloxis have been relocating to higher ground for the last couple of decades, with support from the U.S. Housing and Urban Development agency (HUD) accompanied by a $48.3 million grant to acquire new land some 12 feet above sea level.
Adapting to sea-level rise
As global temperatures keep rising in coming years, natural disasters will steadily increase. However, the world is better prepared to handle natural disasters. According to the International Disasters Database, the number of global casualties related to natural disasters has been contracting, partly due to better early-warning systems that facilitate faster evacuations.
In 2018, nearly half of all deaths from disasters took place in Indonesia (5,510 casualties), as a result of tsunamis and earthquakes in the region. In response, President Joko Widodo presented a plan to build a massive sea wall around Jakarta’s coast to abate damage from the sea and to help reduce the ocean from further encroaching on the capital’s coast, currently at a rate of 8 inches per year.
Jakarta joins other cities that advocate for sea walls, whether in the form of massive barriers, or vegetated buffer zones and wetlands that reduce damage from flash floods and hurricanes. In the U.S., following Hurricane Sandy’s devastating impact on 13 states, many cities along the East Coast received federal funding to better prepare for hurricanes. Cities from New York to Miami are investing millions to protect their coastlines. New York is planning to build a vegetated flood-protection zone around lower Manhattan. Norfolk has a $4 billion coastal resilience work plan underway, while Miami is investing close to half a billion dollars to address sea level rise.
In addition to coastal barriers, some cities implement policies like building codes and zoning laws to ensure schools, hospitals and workplaces are located in safe areas and can withstand the passing of hurricanes and floods. In addition, some cities have other financial instruments to help them recover from hurricanes and storms more quickly — including flood insurance, resilience bonds, or municipal and federal budgets allocated for stormwater management programs.
Coastal communities will adapt to sea-level rise in different ways. Wealthier cities are more likely to adapt and recover from natural disasters more easily than their counterparts in the Global South, due to their increased technical and financial capacity.
Less prosperous coastal communities, despite being the countries with the least amount of greenhouse gas emissions, are more likely to depend on relocating their populations. Over 200,000 households in Bangladesh have already been forced to relocate.
The Paris Agreement stipulated developed countries would provide aid to developing nations to better prepare for climate change, amounting to $100 billion every year in technical and financial assistance — a responsibility mostly being led by the European Union after the U.S. withdrew from the agreement, and a commitment that has yet to materialize.
Kiribati’s former president Anote Tong, bought land in Fiji as contingency for evacuating the country’s population and to send a message to the rest of the world that the survival of their country is at risk, including the lives of around 100,000 Kiribati citizens. Without adequate funding and technical capacity, more countries might follow suit, relying on relocating their coastal populations, as a way to adapt to coastal flooding.