To reach high ground in India, Banglades his fleeing their flooded, polluted plains and rice paddies sneak across the longest border fence in the world--l,500 miles and growing--evading guards who have orders to shoot on sight. With desertification snuffing out opportunity, poor Senegalese and Nigerians crowd wooden fishing boats and set sail for Spain's Canary Islands--the gateway to Europe, already partially blocked by warships from the EU's new border agency, FRONTEX. Or they trek overland across the Sahara to Libya, then pay $2,000 or more to be trafficked across the Mediterranean. And to reach flood-proof land in the developed world, whether in Houston, Holland, or Arctic Alaska, citizens often resort to lawsuits--or receive government buyouts. The Netherlands will spend $3 billion on its Room for the River program, which pays farmers to leave their land, then knocks down their dykes so floodwaters have some place to go in the below-sea-level country. In Harris County, Texas, the Federal Emergency Management Authority (FEMa) has helped buy and demolish 2,200 flood-threatened homes at a cost of $200 million.
Nobody likes the term "climate refugees," but lately it has become a subject of endless speculation. The environmental group Friends of the Earth says there will be 100 million such refugees by 2050. Christian Aid predicts 1 billion. The most recent figures--26 million refugees today, and at least three times that by 2030--come from the Global Humanitarian Forum, led by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, which released its report on warming's human impact in late May. That same month, another major report sounded the alarm. CARE International, in a study funded by the World Bank and the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, settled on a figure of 200 million.
For now, those forced from their homes due to environmental change have neither recognition nor legal recourse, and perhaps with good reason. "Refugee" has an established meaning in international law (someone fleeing war or persecution in his or her home country) suggesting a danger that is sudden, specific, and violent--an imminent threat. But climate change, Hurricane Katrina notwithstanding, is none of these. It is incremental: a slowly expanding ocean, a thinning glacier, an altered monsoon season, a longer dry spell, an earlier spring melt, a heightened hurricane risk. And though it is now generally accepted that there will be more heat...