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Doug Saunders

Let's not fret over climate migration Add to ...

If the predictions were true, the people of Ivalo would be gone, the first wave of refugees in a human tide caused by climate change.

Their river valley Arctic village in northeastern Finland is the first really unambiguous victim of melting polar caps. Starting around 2005, much of the village was suddenly below sea level.

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There's no question that global warming is having its way with Ivalo. But the human effects are not what we expected.

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has claimed in its reports that the most profound single impact of climate change will be "climate migration" - the displacement of as many as 200 million poor people to big cities and other countries due to flooding, shoreline erosion or drought.

But when social scientist Monica Tennberg and her team went to study this village of 3,500 members of the Sami people (Europe's counterpart to the Inuit), she was surprised: Despite effects as serious as those of the most grave climate forecasts, the people of Ivalo didn't migrate.

When the river level encroached on their village, they did some very innovative things: They drew on networks of truckers and had them deliver loads of sand to make Dutch-style levies. And they moved to higher ground and changed their fishing systems.

"If you listen to the IPCC, you might think that the indigenous peoples are the most vulnerable to climate change," Ms. Tennberg, who is by no means a climate-change skeptic or denier, told me when I visited her at the University of Lapland this month. "But the story here turned out to be that local people are very innovative in their ways of dealing with threats. People are very poor, but they are very determined to find new ways of doing things."

There is Sami migration, to work seasonally in cities, but it has nothing to do with climate (those affected migrate the least), and its urbanizing effect has helped them pay for climate adaptation.

In fact, Ms. Tennberg pointed out, those most vulnerable to climate change are the wealthy, who have fixed, expensive infrastructure and buildings in climate-vulnerable locations. Luckily, their countries have the resources to combat rising sea levels, as residents of Amsterdam, London and Venice already know.

Ms. Tennberg's studies are far from alone. The two most respected experts on human migration have both studied the issue in detail and concluded that climate migration is a non-phenomenon. This century will be dominated by human movement, but not one caused by temperature.

Cecila Tacoli, a human-migration expert with Britain's International Institute for Environment and Development, recently studied regions around the world that have been hit with floods, droughts and famines as serious as the worst predicted impacts of climate change. These include northern Mali in the mid-1980s and Burkina Faso in recent years.

In all cases, she found that people moved exactly as far as needed to get away from the effects - into a higher or more fertile part of their district - and found ways to adapt their homes and move back. There was almost no migration to different regions, major cities or other countries.

Ronald Skeldon, a geographer at the University of Sussex Centre for Migration Research whose work in South America and Asia has unlocked the secrets of why people migrate, contributed to one of the major climate-migration studies. He concluded there wasn't anything there.

This century will be dominated by human migration, he told me. But the villagers who move are not those blighted by the environment - in fact, such depredations prevent people from migrating - but those who save and prosper enough to build a better future.

"The waves of migration that are going to happen anyway are going to swamp any climate effects," Prof. Skeldon said. "To suddenly say that climate change is going to displace tens of millions of people - I think that's irresponsible, and just wrong."

He added: "And when people are displaced directly because of, say, rising sea levels, they'd probably be displaced locally or regionally. When the sea rises in Bangladesh and displaces people, they're not going to end up on Europe's doors or permanently in Dhaka, they'll move regionally."

These scholars now realize that mass migration is a solution, not a symptom. If we can encourage family members from climate-affected areas to move to the big cities or the West, their remittances of money home will help their communities to build defences.

The coming decades are likely to see a lot more flooding, and remedies will be expensive. But they will be floods of water, not of people.

Follow on Twitter: @dougsaunders

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