UN Rings False Alarm on Climate Refugees (again)

by William Yeatman on June 7, 2011

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In 2005, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) issued an alarming warning that global warming would displace 50 million people, so-called “climate refugees,” by 2010. Last April, the UNEP was humiliated when the Asian Correspondent published an article, “What Happened to the Climate Refugees?,” noting how, from 2005-2010, populations increased in the very areas of the world that the UNEP had claimed would suffer the largest losses of people due to climate change. Shortly thereafter, the UNEP removed mention of “50 million climate refugees” from its website, and told the German periodical der Spiegel that it wasn’t responsible for the statistic.

You’d have thought the United Nations would have learned its lesson, but it’s back for more. Over the weekend in Oslo, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres unveiled the “Nansen Principles,” a set of guidelines to address the purported problem of climate refugees displaced by natural disasters supposedly caused by global warming.

According to the UNHCR press release attendant to the event,

“There is increasing evidence to suggest that natural disasters are growing in frequency and intensity, and that this is linked to the longer-term process of climate change,” said the High Commissioner, pointing to recent disasters in Japan, the Philippines and Pakistan.

There are three problems with the UNHCR’s scientific appraisal of the forces that are producing “millions” of climate refugees. For starters, Commissioner Guterres’s statement that “there is increasing evidence this [natural disasters growing in frequency and intensity] is linked to the longer term process of climate change” is dubious; in fact, this is a hotly debated issue, and there’s a lot of evidence to the contrary. For example, in a recent exchange among scientists on the relationship between global warming and extreme weather events, University of Colorado Professor Roger Pielke, Jr. noted that, “The detection of changes in climate requires looking at actual data—and the data on tornadoes, large-scale river floods (in unaltered river basins), and landfalling hurricanes shows no evidence of trends in the direction of more extreme events.”

UNHCR Guterres cited the Japanese tsunami and major floods in Pakistan and the Philippines as examples of “natural disasters…linked to the longer-term process of climate change.”  Of course, he’s wrong to cite the tsunami, which was caused by an earthquake. There is no “link” between plate tectonics and the climate. As for his other two examples of global warming-induced disaster, the floods that beset the Philippines and Pakistan, the UNHCR omits mention of their actual cause: the ocean-atmosphere interaction known as La Niňa.

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