The Alaskan climate refugees who never left
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The Alaskan climate refugees who never left

One of the more moderate voices in the debate about the since-disowned claim by the United Nations that there would be 50 million climate refugees by 2010 is Oli Brown of the United Nations Environment Programme.

On this subject, Mr Brown featured in New Scientist magazine a couple of months ago as follows:

Oli Brown of UNEP reviewed four case studies for the International Organization for Migration in 2008… More plausible candidates for the title of climate refugee, he said, were the 100 residents of a coral atoll in Vanuatu, and the 500 on an island in the Bering Strait whose coastal village was raked by waves intensified by disappearing sea ice. In both cases, the refugees fled inland. For sceptics, however, these few hundred compare badly with Myers’s 50 million.

Having since contacted the Alaskan Division of Community and Regional Affairs, The ShadowLands blog has discovered that contrary to Brown’s assessment, the people have in fact not yet been relocated from the town he is referring to (Shishmaref in Alaska) in his paper, Migration and Climate Change. Only a small number of houses have been relocated because of erosion.

Brown wrote in this paper that:

Shishmaref village lies on Sarichef island just north of the Bering strait. A combination of melting permafrost and sea-shore erosion at a rate of up to 3.3 metres a year have forced the inhabitants to relocate their village several kilometres to the south.

The Alaskan Division of Community and Regional Affairs advises me via email that the population of Shishmaref remains at 563 as of 2010 and that few, if any, people have had to move from where they are on the island following extensive erosion mitigation works. Plans remain in place, however, for a move to be made – as there have been since the 1970s.

The fact that Shishmaref is suffering from a significant erosion problem is apparent from the photographs, but the claim that 500 people were forced to move before 2010 appears to be false.

The reference that he gives in the paper to support his claim– this website – provides no such assurance that the people have already moved.

In the absence of actual confirmation from Vanuatuans, as far as I can tell, the assertion that 100 people on the island of Lateu in Vanuatu have had to move may be correct, but technically, these 100 people are not refugees – they are people who have been internally displaced. Even if we accept that they fit the definition of climate refugees, this still leaves the UNEP claim that there would be 50 million climate refugees by 2010 short by 49,999,900.