Disaster Approaching
Rising Tides

Disaster Approaching

Environmental writers John R. Wennersten and Denise Robbins present the definitive overview of climate change – a likely world-defining problem.

University of Maryland emeritus professor John R. Wennersten, PhD and climate change expert Denise Robbins provide an in-depth exploration of how climate change drives – and will further drive – human migration. The authors present a detailed, sobering analysis of a global problem for which the world has done little to prepare.

Climate Change

The impacts of climate change include higher temperatures, rising seas, heat waves, drought and more intense storms. Limiting warming to less than 2oC [3.6oF] above preindustrial temperatures is essential to planetary and human health.

Without action, the World Bank predicts a “climate departure” by 2047: record-breaking rising temperatures and weather patterns that bear no resemblance to those of 2017.

In 1990, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicted human migration would be among the most severe consequences of climate change. Conflict over food and water, plus weather catastrophes and drought will force predominately poor migrants to seek refuge where they’re not welcome.

50 Million

Other forces also drive human migration, including natural disasters, rising populations, declining agricultural yields, armed conflicts, economic pressures and construction projects – for instance, dam projects – displace 10 million people in developing nations each year.

Environmental refugees are a problem of development policy beyond the scope of a single country or agency. The problems are fraught with emotion, human agency and political controversy.John R. Wennersten, Denise Robbins

The United Nations predicts the world will see 50 million climate refugees by 2020.

Island Nations

Pacific Islanders are steadily losing their nations to sea level rise. High-velocity winds, surges and storms damage their food and water resources and shelter. The island of Kiribati bought land in Fiji to provide for its residents’ agricultural needs when their farmlands flood. Kiribatians will migrate when their island becomes uninhabitable.

Resistance to the ‘onslaught of the refugee’ takes the form of armed frontier patrols, computer data banks, fingerprinting, and various forms of travel documents.John R. Wennersten, Denise Robbins

Small island nations appeal to the UN Security Council rather than the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) because island residents view climate change as an existential security threat.


Louisiana loses a football field-sized parcel of land to the ocean every hour. Fossil fuel companies dug approximately 10,000 miles (16,100 kilometers) of canals in the state to access drill sites, thereby perforating land masses and accelerating erosion.

Wars, social conflict and instability across much of the Arab world have led to 16.7 million refugees being displaced worldwide.John R. Wennersten, Denise Robbins

Levees intended to block flooding prevent sediment from building up new wetlands that could mitigate the intensity of hurricanes, like 2005’s Katrina, which displaced hundreds of thousands of people for months. Many never came back to New Orleans.

Central and South America

Guatemala, Panama and Honduras instituted severe water rationing in 2014 and 2015. The El Niño weather pattern – becoming more frequent and intense due to climate change – brings hot, dry days on the Pacific coast and stormy, wetter days on the Atlantic coasts of Central and South America. In the Caribbean, rising seas are ruining freshwater aquifers.

Developed countries will have to bear more of the cost of maintaining people displaced by environmental or climatic events in their own country.John R. Wennersten, Denise Robbins

In Brazil, for example, drought pushes agricultural workers into megacities of more than 10 million people. Eighty percent of the Latin America population lives in cities, and 70% of all people worldwide will be urban dwellers by 2050. The Amazon rain forest defends against drought and sequesters carbon, yet people are cutting it down at an alarming pace. Deforestation leads to severe flooding and landslides. The rain forest is responsible for two-thirds of the rainfall over Southeast Brazil, but the current rate of clear-cutting will destroy the rain forest by 2050 or 2060.


Africa faces food insecurity stemming from drought and amplified by deforestation, rising sea levels and soaring temperatures that evaporate water before it can irrigate plants. War, political violence and food scarcity drove Africa’s 14 million refugees away from their homes and into camps and urban centers.

The Middle East

Conflict in the Arab world generated 16.7 million refugees and left an additional 33.3 million “internally displaced persons” within their own countries. The 2006–2010 Syrian drought turned half the country into desert, sending migrants to urban centers already stressed with Iraqi War refugees. The Assad government designated digging wells without a permit as illegal political defiance. Protests spread, and brutal suppression led Syria into civil war.

Jordan’s broken pipes mean that much of the water it pumps spills into sand. That lost water could meet the demands of one-third of Jordanians. Many Arab countries desalinate ocean water to drink but dump the salt back into the seas – disrupting fisheries and other ecology.


Asia’s sprawling coastal cities are vulnerable to sea level rise, flash flooding and storms. One slum in Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital, for example, has 70,000 residents but no sewage system; frequent floods lead to malaria and cholera outbreaks. Rice is heat sensitive, so rising temperatures diminish output. Japan, China and Korea will lose much of their rice-producing wetlands. Half of Vietnam’s rice comes from the Mekong River area, which rising seas could obliterate.


The authors cite predictions suggesting a range of 50 million to 350 million climate refugees worldwide by 2050. 

It is primarily people in poor, developing countries that have high population density, marginal food stores, health problems and political instability who will become environmental refugees.John R. Wennersten, Denise Robbins

If refugees aren’t treated humanely, the authors insist, “ethnic upheaval, disease” and “terrorism” will blossom from their misery.

Grim Forecast

John R. Wennersten writes a lot about water. His earlier books address the evolution of specific locales, such as eastern America’s Chesapeake Bay. Here, he and Denise Robbins take on a vast topic that seems to thwart their attempts at sophisticated interpretation or emotional perspective. They rely on data and statistics and only occasional anecdotes to tell a terrifying, if somewhat dry, tale. Their writing is academic and laypeople may need to take in only a few sections at a time. However, experts, environmental advocates and anyone seeking greater understanding of the geopolitical ramifications of climate change and human mass migration will find this deeply informed overview foundational and sadly illuminating.

John R. Wennersten’s books include The Oyster Wars of Chesapeake Bay and Anacostia: The Death and Life of an American River. He co-authored Abraham Lincoln and the End of Slavery in the District of Columbia with Robert S. Pohl.

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