Migration Crisis — You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet

To date, somewhere around 11 million refugees have fled Syria since their civil war began in 2011. That’s about 0.1% of the current world population. We are all aware of challenges that Europe, and indeed the greater international community, has faced in response to this massive migration. The crisis has shown us that the international community is ill-prepared to handle a migration of this size and duration.

Remember World War II? Thankfully the world hasn’t experienced an international conflict like that in over 70 years. In addition to the terrible loses of that global conflict, it resulted in an estimated 60 million displaced people. Syria’s 11 million refugees may pale in direct comparison, but regional and national conflicts rage worldwide. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported there were 65.3 million displaced people at the close of 2015.

There are more displaced people now than there were after World War II. It’s a globalized world, people. And it matters.

The point of this post isn’t to talk about what the international community should do, or what American policy should be. Instead, I want you to think about how disruptive these two migration events have been (and yes, I acknowledge there have been many other large migration events throughout history). Are you thinking about it? Good.

Now chew on this: sea level rise resulting from global climate change is estimated to leave up to 760 million people homeless, according to the scientific research organization Climate Central. 760 million. That’s over 11 times as many people as are currently displaced in the entire world! In China and the United States alone, more than 170 million residents live in low-lying coastal areas that are vulnerable to flooding. That number is a whopping 15 times as large as the total number of Syrian refugees to date.

Well, you might say, China and the United States are both countries much larger in square miles than Syria. Good point, friend. Let’s pretend nation-states can live in an isolated world, hermetically sealed off from the current affairs of foreign nations near and far. As many as 6.5 million people in the United States currently live in an area that is vulnerable to sea level rise. Population is of course not static. By the end of the century, an estimated 13.1 million people in the Unites States will live in a flood area on the coastline. The continued and expected population growth in low lying coastal areas, both in the U.S. and throughout the world, coincides with significant estimated sea level rises.

The economic and humanitarian crisis that would ensue would be of a scale unlike any migration event before it. And there won’t be an abundance of uninhabited land available, as there has been for much of human history.

We build back after storms. We respond. For the most part, we do it well. But sea level rise will not afford that opportunity. This isn’t a large, swift, forceful storm. This is a slow mover. But it has the potential to be a serious disruptor. And the collective “we” are quite terrible at preparing and prioritizing potential disasters and conflicts that appear just over the horizon. There are plenty of serious threats knocking at the door now, right? Politicians at the federal level are especially guilty of being reactive rather than proactive.

This is where our local communities and governments have an opportunity to shine. It’s a great big world out there, and one size does not fit all. Those communities at, below, or near sea level are best poised to think about the problem of sea level rise, and come up with solutions that work best for the needs, resources, and priorities of their local communities.

Somewhere along the way, the idea that big problems are best solved at the highest levels became commonplace. What can Hampton Roads, Virginia do to solve global climate change? Well, probably not much. But it has the power to decide and determine how to protect and plan for the resilience of its community against climate change and whatever threats it decides to fight. Whether the solution is lifting homes, creating communities of floating homes, or something else, the best chance for success lies at ground level.

Floating city design concept.
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