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Playing the scary numbers game with possible climate change migration

climate-floodSpeaking to the Institute for Public Policy Research, UK shadow immigration minister Chris Bryant warned that climate change could cause 200 million people to flee their countries (a BBC News Magazine story reports).  He quoted a UN estimate that 20m were displaced by climate change in 2008, and spoke of UN estimates that the figure might reach as high as  200m by 2050.

Alex Randall of Climate Outreach and Information Network doubts even the 20m figure which is, he says, reached by “adding up all of the people who’ve been displaced by any kind of natural disaster and labelling them climate refugees.” And many don’t migrate, he adds, but move short distances and then come back.  The 200m figure is based on research by Oxford’s Prof Norman Myers, whose 1995 and 2005 papers also predicted that 50m people would become climate refugees by 2010. It did not happen, of course.  Stephen Castles from Oxford University’s International Migration Institute has major problems with Myers’ methodology.

“He simply took a map of the world, worked out what areas would be inundated if the sea rose, say by 50cm, and then simply assumed that all the people affected by this sea level rise would have to migrate – and that a lot of them would migrate to developed countries. Really there was no basis for it.”

He does not deny there will be some climate refugees if Pacific islands are submerged, but puts the number at tens of thousands, not millions, and certainly not 200m. None of this will stop people like Chris Bryant playing the scary numbers game.  You pluck the most frightening number you can out of absurdly unlikely assumptions (often labelling it a “worst case” scenario).  This number plays around the NGOs and the media and is then quoted as if it had been established by serious scientific study.


4 Responses

  1. Sea levels have been rising around 6 inches/15 cm every 100 years since the last ice age. Humans have hitched themselves onto higher ground ever since. The evidence is clear to see and studies of ancient submerged harbours show the rate of rise. If the rate has been constant during the last 5000 years a simple calculation gives a rise in sea levels of 25 feet/7.62 meters. It’s still happening and humans will keep hitching. We both agree on this.

  2. Hmmm, sea levels have risen by 6 inches in the last 100 years but man’s average height has only gone up by 4 inches in the same period (see Madsen’s previous post).

    We have a problem.

    • If we use the same calculations for sea level rises and man’s height during the last 5000 years starting at say 5 feet x 4 inches every 100 years, man should have reached a height of 21.6 feet ! This means that you are correct…….we have a problem,

  3. I think what the programme missed is that the 200m figure is still useful, it just measures something else. It identifies 200m people who will be in areas badly affected by climate change. They won’t all become migrants. But that’s still 200m people very much in harms way. The figure has huge significance for managing disaster risk in cities for example.

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