The Coming Flood of Climate Refugees

What happens when a country's immigrant population doubles in the span of two decades? Nations scramble to prepare as flooding and water scarcity precipitated by escalating environmental catastrophes cause millions to spill across international borders. As America absorbs its share of refugees, we'll face the economic and security ramifications of a threat that we still haven't collectively acknowledged.

Concern that climate change is a serious problem fell to 35% from 44% in 2008, even as the government fails to take action on greenhouse gas emissions, but its effects are already tangible in the U.S., according to a new study from Stanford that has sparked still more controversy over global warming. When reason fails to inform public discourse, how do we begin to dislodge reactionism in favor of a proactive, solutions-based dialogue?

Director Michael Nash has discovered one way with his internationally acclaimed documentary Climate Refugees, the first film to intimately portray the human face of climate change. Drawing on interviews with experts such as Lester Brown, Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai, and politicians from Nancy Pelosi to Newt Gingrich, Climate Refugees examines the plight of an estimated 25-40 million already displaced people.

Following a Q&A with Michael, here's an introduction to the startling consequences of climate-induced mass migration:

Anna Clark: You traveled to countries from Bangladesh to China to Chad. Is there a common experience among the climate migrants in the world today?

climate refugees film posterMichael Nash: There's an intersection that is taking place in civilization where overconsumption, overpopulation, and lack of resources are colliding. For the majority of climate refugees, it's all about water, either too much or too little. In Bangladesh, for example, 150 million people live at sea level. A one-meter rise could wipe out 40 percent of their land for food. Many refugees are dealing with floods and salinization of land, while others are dealing with massive droughts. All are dealing with the reality that they can no longer survive in the land where they once lived.

AC: Where will these migrants go?

MN: In history, there was always available real estate for people to move to, but there is no more available land now. In lieu of relocating to unpopulated areas, people from countries with no resources will go to countries with resources. Nation-states with permanent borders -- artifacts of the last few centuries -- may not look the same in a world that is changing so rapidly.

People won't cross borders for copper or tin, but they will for food and water. Look at Mexico and the U.S. Many of the Latinos who are coming here are migrating from Southern Mexico where there is no food to America, which has plenty. We believe that most of the climate migrants will follow this pattern and cross over into neighboring countries.

AC: What effects will climate migration have on America's economy?

MN: Hurricanes in Miami, fires in California, and floods in New Orleans are all bad, but that is nothing compared to 50 million people coming here to assimilate. People already complain that we're hemorrhaging money over 10 million Latinos, but migration on this order is a game-changer.

AC: What is preventing this from getting into the public dialogue?

MN: In America, it's politics. We did everything we could to make this an apolitical film, but this is really a political issue, that's the reality. What's happening on the deniers' side is no different than what happened in the '50s, '60s, and '70s with tobacco. There are billions and billions of dollars at stake. I think our system is broken. Both parties are more interested in their party than they are in what is good.

Also, climate change just isn't that visible yet in America. When we see a lake, or the Gulf, that's visibly polluted, we get that. We still don't get this.