Will There Really Be 750 Million Refugees From Flooding?

Excerpt from Q&A, August 2, 2016, watch from 1.12.

PETER SINGER: That is going to basically inundate every coastal city around the world, including, of course, all Australian major cities are coastal. It is going - estimated to cause something like 750 million refugees just moving away from that flooding. Never mind those who also because refugees because (indistinct)…

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Some of those claims are contested, of course?

PETER SINGER: Well, they are contested but do you want to take the chance, right? – Peter Singer, Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics, Princeton University, speaking on Q&A with host Virginia Trioli, August 2, 2016.

Ethicist Peter Singer told Q&A that climate change-related sea level rises are “estimated to cause something like 750 million refugees just moving away from that flooding”.

It is beyond the scope of a FactCheck to say with any certainty what will happen in the future. And there is no single official data source on the numbers of people who migrate because of the impacts of climate change, partly because there is no legal definition of a “climate change refugee”. Furthermore, most such displacement occurs within countries, not across international borders, and is always due to a number of different factors. Finally, there is no systematic monitoring of such movement.

That said, we can check how Singer’s figure of 750 million fits within the range of estimates that exist on this question.

Checking the source

When asked for sources to support his statement, Peter Singer said:

Factchecking always welcome! My source for the figure is Climate Central and in terms of the possible extent of sea level rises, please see this paper by Hansen et al.

The figure I gave is near the top end of the Climate Central range, but remember that I agreed with Virginia Trioli that this is contested. I argued that if it is even a small chance, the stakes are too high to be worth taking the risk.

Climate Central is a group of scientists and journalists researching and reporting climate change and its effects. In 2015, the group said that:

Carbon emissions causing 4°C of warming — what business-as-usual points toward today — could lock in enough sea level rise to submerge land currently home to 470 to 760 million people, with unstoppable rise unfolding over centuries.

Predictions vary and uncertainties abound, but climate scientists say it is possible we may reach 4°C of warming by 2100 if insufficient effort is made to reign in emissions.

As Singer acknowledges, his figure of 750 million is at the upper end of estimates – and he readily agreed that estimates are contested.

Without detracting from Singer’s broader point about the human consequences of climate change, it is worth taking a closer look at the context, assumptions and methodologies behind some of these alarming-sounding figures.

What does Singer’s source say about climate refugees?

When Climate Central released its Mapping Choices report in 2015, the headline it used on its website was “New Report and Maps: Rising Seas Threaten Land Home to Half a Billion”.

But to be clear, Climate Central’s full report did not say that 750 million people would need to move away due to rising sea levels – in fact, unlike Singer, it didn’t use the term “refugees” at all.

Instead, it said only that under a 4°C warming scenario, there could be “enough sea level rise to submerge land currently home to 470 to 760 million people” (emphasis added).

Many people would indeed move in that scenario – but past experience from around the world means we can be confident that many would also stay and try to live with a changed environment.

The Climate Central report acknowledges that its estimates do not take adaptation strategies into account, noting:

Results do not account for present or future shoreline defences, such as levees, that might be built, nor for future population growth, decline or relocation.

A vast range of estimates – and plenty of guesswork

Some of the numerical estimates on climate-related displacement are based on crude methodologies, as explained in my 2012 book, Climate Change, Forced Migration, and International Law.

For example, in 1993 social scientist Norman Myers wrote a paper suggesting that 150 million people could be displaced by climate change by the the mid-21st century. He had identified areas expected to be affected by sea-level rise, and then calculated the anticipated population of those areas in 2050. In subsequent work and interviews, he said the figure could be closer to 200 million or 250 million. Estimates ranging from 50 million to 600 million to even a billion have been cited by some.

The Observer published an article in 2010 headlined “Climate change will cost a billion people their homes, says report”.

However, that report misconstrued a paper by Dr François Gemenne – whose work is empirically based and well-reasoned – that referred to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) comment that freshwater availability in a changing climate may adversely affect more than a billion people by the 2050s. That’s a different story from the one told in The Observer’s headline.

Many of these upper end estimates – and the methodologies used to calculate them – have been criticised by other researchers, who note that very big estimates often fail to account for adaptation.

The IPCC itself has said that:

Estimates of the number of people who may become environmental migrants are, at best, guesswork.

How much weather-related displacement of people have we seen so far?

Peter Singer’s comment was about future impacts of climate change. But what do we know about current and past climate-related movement?

The best statistics on this are published by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), the leading source of information on internal displacement whose role has been endorsed by the UN. It said in its Global Estimates 2015: People displaced by disasters report that:

Since 2008, an average of 22.5 million people have been displaced by climate- or weather-related disasters [each year].

climate refugees2 8 5These figures were also recognised in the Nansen Initiative’s Agenda for the Protection of Cross-Border Displaced Persons in the context of Disasters and Climate Change, endorsed by 109 States (including Australia) in late 2015, and by the UN Secretary-General’s report on refugees and migrants prepared for a high-level summit on large movements of refugees and migrants to be held in New York in September 2016.


Are rising seas “estimated to cause something like 750 million refugees” to have to move, as Peter Singer said? Not according to the source he provided, which actually found that sea level rises under a 4°C warming scenario could submerge land currently home to 470 to 760 million people; the report didn’t say that all or most would subsequently become refugees.

As Singer acknowledged, his figure of 750 million people being affected by climate change-related flooding in future is at the upper end of estimates – and is contested. The methodologies and assumptions underpinning some of the upper end estimates have been critiqued by scholars, as they often do not adequately account for adaptation. – Jane McAdam


In general, I and others in the migration field would strongly agree with the author’s sound critique of Singer’s assertion.

Human mobility in the context of climate change is complex. Limits to a more nuanced understanding of this issue may be due to a lack of agreement on the legal definitions and the methodological choices made to project numbers of environmental migrants, as well as - importantly - an understatement of the agency and adaptive capacities of people.

Communities in coastal and low-lying areas that may be affected by sea-level rise in the future are affected today by recurrent natural hazards, coastal erosion, land subsidence, and saltwater contamination of arable land.

Empirical studies, including from the United Nations University, have explored how migration contributes to livelihoods and household adaptation strategies.

Experts tend to agree that the types of movements that might fall under that moniker “climate migrant” are varied and complex. Robust estimates by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre fall short of accounting for people living in prolonged displacement, displaced across borders (generally agreed to be a minority), or migrating away from their homes due to the long-term effects of climate change (erratic weather, droughts, and the gradual loss of land). The last grouping may be the largest – and would be considered labour migration under current definitions.

About The Author

Jane McAdam, Scientia Professor and Director of the Andrew & Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law, UNSW Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Related Books

List Price: $18.00
Sale Price: $18.00 $12.81 You save: $5.19
Product Description:


A major book about the future of the world, blending intellectual and natural history and field reporting into a powerful account of the mass extinction unfolding before our eyes

Over the last half-billion years, there have been Five mass extinctions, when the diversity of life on earth suddenly and dramatically contracted. Scientists around the world are currently monitoring the sixth extinction, predicted to be the most devastating extinction event since the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs. This time around, the cataclysm is us. In prose that is at once frank, entertaining, and deeply informed, New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert tells us why and how human beings have altered life on the planet in a way no species has before. Interweaving research in half a dozen disciplines, descriptions of the fascinating species that have already been lost, and the history of extinction as a concept, Kolbert provides a moving and comprehensive account of the disappearances occurring before our very eyes. She shows that the sixth extinction is likely to be mankind's most lasting legacy, compelling us to rethink the fundamental question of what it means to be human.

List Price: $18.99
Sale Price: $18.99 $16.83 You save: $2.16
Product Description: The most important book yet from the author of the international bestseller The Shock Doctrine, a brilliant explanation of why the climate crisis challenges us to abandon the core “free market” ideology of our time, restructure the global economy, and remake our political systems.

In short, either we embrace radical change ourselves or radical changes will be visited upon our physical world. The status quo is no longer an option.

In This Changes Everything Naomi Klein argues that climate change isn’t just another issue to be neatly filed between taxes and health care. It’s an alarm that calls us to fix an economic system that is already failing us in many ways. Klein meticulously builds the case for how massively reducing our greenhouse emissions is our best chance to simultaneously reduce gaping inequalities, re-imagine our broken democracies, and rebuild our gutted local economies. She exposes the ideological desperation of the climate-change deniers, the messianic delusions of the would-be geoengineers, and the tragic defeatism of too many mainstream green initiatives. And she demonstrates precisely why the market has not—and cannot—fix the climate crisis but will instead make things worse, with ever more extreme and ecologically damaging extraction methods, accompanied by rampant disaster capitalism.

Klein argues that the changes to our relationship with nature and one another that are required to respond to the climate crisis humanely should not be viewed as grim penance, but rather as a kind of gift—a catalyst to transform broken economic and cultural priorities and to heal long-festering historical wounds. And she documents the inspiring movements that have already begun this process: communities that are not just refusing to be sites of further fossil fuel extraction but are building the next, regeneration-based economies right now.

Can we pull off these changes in time? Nothing is certain. Nothing except that climate change changes everything. And for a very brief time, the nature of that change is still up to us.

English Afrikaans Arabic Chinese (Simplified) Chinese (Traditional) Dutch Filipino French German Hindi Indonesian Italian Japanese Korean Malay Persian Portuguese Russian Spanish Swahili Swedish Thai Turkish Urdu Vietnamese


Jay Inslee Tells Hayes That He Wants To Gut The Filibuster To Fight Climate Change
Washington Governor Jay Inslee is running for president on the single issue of climate change and argues that doing…
Causes and Effects of Climate Change
by National Geographic
What causes climate change (also known as global warming)? And what are the effects of climate change? Learn the human…
Extreme Weather and Global Warming
by NASA Goddard
Is the frequency of extreme weather events a sign that global warming is gaining pace and exceeding predictions? Bill…
Thanks to Climate Change, Wet Winters No Match for Drier California Summers
by KPIX CBS SF Bay Area
If the emerald-green hills around Northern California have you thinking recent rains have put a damper on the fire…
Climate Change Is Not One Issue
"Climate change is not one issue," said David Wallace-Wells, author of "The Uninhabitable Earth," but is…
The Heat: Climate change
by CGTN America
Images gathered by NASA show an increase in foliage in China and India. The greening effect is mainly due to ambitious…
No company is doing enough to combat climate change: Jeremy Grantham
by CNBC Television
Jeremy Grantham, co-founder of GMO, on climate change and what needs to be done to combat it.
Power Plants Are POISONING Groundwater All Over America
by The Ring of Fire
According to a new report, 90% of coal-fired power plants across the country have completely contaminated the…


Default Image
Come on, UK weather forecasters – tell it like it is on climate change
by Adam Corner
They have a national reach that most climate campaigners would die for. They are familiar and respected experts on the…
Green New Deal: 6 places already reducing emissions from buildings
Green New Deal: 6 places already reducing emissions from buildings
by David Roberts
One of the elements of the Green New Deal resolution that has caused the most consternation among critics on the right…
Default Image
UK environmentalists target Barclays in fossil fuels campaign
by Matthew Taylor
A UK-wide campaign is being launched to persuade one of the country’s biggest high street banks to stop investing…
Oceanic carbon uptake could falter
Oceanic carbon uptake could falter
by Tim Radford
What does oceanic carbon uptake achieve? Greenhouse gas that sinks below the waves slows global warming a little and…
Britain (Yes, Rainy Britain) Could Run Short of Water by 2050, Official Says
Britain (Yes, Rainy Britain) Could Run Short of Water by 2050, Official Says
by Global Warming & Climate Change
“Climate change plus growth equals an existential threat,” Mr. Bevan said. To avoid severe water shortages, he added,…
Default Image
Record high US temperatures outpace record lows two to one, study finds
by Associated Press
Over the past 20 years, Americans have been twice as likely to sweat through record-breaking heat rather than shiver…
Climate change: Water shortages in England 'within 25 years'
Climate change: Water shortages in England 'within 25 years'
by BBC News - Science & Environment
Image copyright PA Image caption Low water levels at Wayoh Reservoir near Bolton in the UK heatwave in July 2018 Within…
Default Image
Why you'll never meet a white supremacist who cares about climate change
by Rebecca Solnit
As the news of the Christchurch mosque massacre broke and I scoured the news, I came across a map showing that the…