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‘Calamity’ awaits those unready for climate-change refugees

by Rowan Hooper

There is a wonderful expression in Japanese: Fūdo ni nareru, which means something like “to become acclimatized to natural conditions.”

The kanji characters making up “fūdo” are fū (wind) and do (earth), and the expression tends to refer to how Japan’s natural conditions — its day-to-day weather and overall climate — influence the character of its people.

I like to think that most people, Japanese included, are quite flexible, and will adapt well to new conditions — in other words, they acclimatize. If “fūdo ni nareru” is correct, this means their innate character will change too, over time.

All this naturally leads me to the question: How will Japanese sensibilities — Japan’s national character — change as the climate changes?

I don’t just mean how will Japanese culture cope if the cherry-blossom season comes earlier in the year. There are more serious threats even than that. For one thing, Japan is in the top 10 of all the world’s countries most threatened by rising sea levels.

A report by the British-based International Institute for Environment and Development, titled “Assessing the costs of adaptation to climate change” (11501 IIED, 2009), found that Japan is the country with the sixth-highest number of people — more than 30 million — living within 10 meters of the average sea level.

As well as the potential cost in human lives, the dangers of sea-level rise are economic, too, as there are six major port cities in Japan built around river deltas: Fukuoka-Kitakyushu, Hiroshima, Nagoya, Osaka-Kobe, Sapporo and Tokyo.

Together, these cities contribute trillions of yen to the economy — and they all need protecting.

And we now all know about the country’s nuclear-power stations, many of which are located on the coast.

One of the problems with talking about the risks of climate change is that people think it’s something that will happen at some indeterminate time in the future, so they think we don’t need to worry about it too much now.

So let’s put it another way. Even today, 2 million people in Japan live below the average high-water level. Many of those people already know all too well what happens when there are floods and storm surges.

However, as the global climate warms and sea levels rise, the incidence of floods and storm surges will increase dramatically. So where will these 2 million people go when their land is submerged? It’s something that needs to be planned for now.

Last year, more than 30 million people in Asia were forced to migrate to new areas as a result of environmental and weather-related pressures. The Asian Development Bank says that tens of millions more are at risk from various effects of global warming such as sea-level rise, floods, droughts and food shortages.

And it’s not something that rich Asian countries like Japan are immune to.

Indeed, the report of a 2008 Environment Ministry panel on global warming (www.csid.com.cn/NewsInfo.asp?NewsId=86502) recognizes that food quality has suffered in all 47 prefectures as a result of climate change. The government also acknowledges that there are serious problems in Japan: Fisheries and water supply have also been affected.

So it’s a problem bigger than a change in the timing of people’s beloved hanami (cherry blossom-viewing) parties.

Last week, scientists at the Columbia University, New York-based Center for International Earth Science Information Network, and colleagues around the world, published a study report in the journal Science. The paper, titled “Preparing for resettlement associated with climate change,” argues that the potential effects of population displacement as a result of climate change are being under-studied.

Governments, they say in that report, must be prepared for mass migrations caused by rising global temperatures — or they may face the possibility of “calamity.”

The scientists reviewed 50 years of research related to population resettlement, and determined that resettlement efforts in the past have left communities in ruin.

Governments, they said, need to use lessons from the past to protect people who are forced to relocate because of climate change.

“The effects of climate change are likely to be experienced by as many people as disasters,” said Anthony Oliver-Smith, an anthropologist from the University of Florida. “More people than ever may be moving in response to intense storms, increased flooding and drought that makes living untenable in their current location.”

The number and intensity of typhoons is also predicted to increase as the climate warms. In 2004, Japan experienced a record 10 typhoons that together caused $10 billion of damage. Oliver-Smith said it is a moral imperative to prepare now.

In light of the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami on March 11 this year, the government now of course knows what it is like to have to relocate tens of thousands of people. It should learn from this experience of what it takes to absorb outsiders into new communities and to set up entirely new communities.

Of course, the tsunami refugees are not foreigners, but the experience might help loosen the notoriously strong laws on immigration to Japan.

The nation’s population, currently around 127 million, is expected to fall below 100 million by 2055, with tens of millions of “gray” retirees. Can Japan reinvent itself (and increase its tax base to pay for all those aging people) by widening the door to immigrants, and accepting climate refugees from abroad? And can citizens adapt the way they live in order to prosper sustainably as the climate changes?

There is another expression that may be relevant. Kachō fūgetsu means that you should experience the beauties of nature in order to learn about yourself. It is made up of four kanji characters: ka (flower), chō (bird), fū (wind) and getsu (moon). Can a modern-day poet come up with an expression that means we should experience the realities of nature in order to protect ourselves?

Rowan Hooper (@rowhoop on Twitter) is the News Editor of New Scientist magazine. The second volume of his Natural Selections columns translated into Japanese is published by Shinchosha at ¥1,500. The title is “Hito wa Ima mo Shinka Shiteru (The Evolving Human).”