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Coastal peoples hit by climate change

There is serious doubt whether the majority of people who rely on fishing and other coastal activities for their livelihood can survive the impact of climate change. Millions of coastal refugees could be forced to move inland, at a time when the interiors of continents are becoming hotter and drier.

A conference of fisher folk in the Kanyakumari District of Kerala, South India, has heard that the 56km coast they rely on for their livelihood is disappearing. Eighty per cent of their fresh water has been salinated by sea water incursions. Over the next 50 years, sea levels will rise by up to another five meters as climate change kicks in.

The conference in Tamilnadu agreed that the fisher folk are paying the price for the economic activities and lifestyles of others, and passed a resolution condemning polluting industries, chemical farming practices, non-renewable energy production, and the carbon emitting life style. They said that the polluters should pay the price for ecologically affected fisher people and other marginalised communities.

Thousands of miles north, in Scotland, a new report explains that 12 per cent of the coastline is currently vulnerable to erosion but that figure is set to rise. There has already been an increase in salinity in coastal waters and a rise in dissolved CO2 is threatening marine organisms. The seas round Scotland (not including the oil and gas industries) provide around 50,000 jobs.

At the other end of the globe, Australia’s 14 million square kilometer coast is the longest on earth and approximately 80% of people live within 50km of the coastline. It supports crucial economic activity, including fishing, tourism and agriculture. But Australia’s unique coastal wetlands, estuaries, mangrove swamps, coral reefs and marine life are under threat from erosion, inundation with sea water, and increased risk of flooding and storm damage.

A report from the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) says at least three quarters of the world’s fishing grounds will be seriously affected by changes in the ocean's natural pumping systems caused by climate change. These natural pumps, dotted at sites across the world including the Arctic and the Mediterranean, bring nutrients to fisheries and keep them healthy by flushing out wastes and pollution.

Higher sea surface temperatures will bleach and kill up to 80 per cent of the globe's coral reefs, which are not only tourist attractions but also natural sea defences and fish nurseries. CO2 emissions are making the sea more acid, threatening calcium and shell-forming marine life and the crucial planktons that form the base of the marine food chain pyramid – with humans at its apex.

Meanwhile the latest figures show record melting in the world’s glaciers and sea ice, the main cause of rising sea levels. UNEP found that between 2004 and 2006 the average rate of melting and thinning of glaciers more than doubled. And the massive Wilkins Shelf, the largest ice shelf in Antarctica which scientists had predicted would last until the 2020s, is now linked to the continent by just a narrow strip of thin ice.

Professor David Vaughan of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) said: "It's bigger than any ice shelf we've seen retreating before, and in the long term it could be a taste of other things to come. It is another indication of the impact that climate change is having on the region." The only location where there is no impact is situated in the minds of the political and business elites, who continue to sit on their hands while global warming takes its toll. They are truly an obstacle to creating a sustainable future for humanity.

Penny Cole
Environment editor
28 April 2008

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