Stay up to date with notifications from The Independent

Notifications can be managed in browser preferences.

The world's first 'climate refugees'

Andrew Buncombe
Sunday 20 August 2006 00:00 BST

Has Hurricane Katrina created the world's first "climate refugees"?

A year after the storm struck, taking 1,800 lives and causing $80bn worth of damage, New Orleans is less than half its former size, says a Washington-based environmental group. Coastal parishes in Louisiana and Mississippi have also lost residents. A total of 370,000 people are currently absent from these locations as a result of the hurricane and the numbers of people returning has slowed to a trickle.

"We estimate that at least 250,000 of them have established homes elsewhere and will not return," said, Lester Brown, the director of the Earth Policy Institute. "They no longer want to face the personal trauma and financial risks associated with rising seas and destructive storms. These evacuees are now climate refugees.

"Those of us who track the effects of global warming had assumed that the first large flow of climate refugees would be in the South Pacific with the abandonment of Tuvalu or other low-lying islands. We were wrong."

Scientists are divided as to whether there is a provable link between the rise in sea-surface temperatures and the increased intensity of hurricanes in the past decade. Researchers such as Kerry Emanuel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology argue there is such a link.

Others, such as Chris Landsea of the Tropical Prediction Centre in Miami, argue it is part of a natural cycle. The years 2004 and 2005 were the busiest hurricane seasons on record in the Atlantic.

Mr Brown said: "More destructive storms are an early manifestation of global warming. The longer term risk is that rising temperatures will melt glaciers and polar ice caps, raising sea levels and displacing coastal residents worldwide."

His analysis claimed that the US was "primarily" responsible for global warming. America accounts for 25 per cent of the world's CO2 emissions. "The flow of climate refugees to date numbers in the thousands, but if we don't act to curb CO2 emissions, it could one day number millions."

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in