August 17 2006 at 03:25AM
Washington - The first mass exodus of people fleeing the effects of climate change is not happening in low-lying Pacific islands but in the world's most powerful country, a United States study said on Wednesday.
"The first massive movement of climate refugees has been that of people away from the Gulf Coast of the United States," said the Washington-based Earth Policy Institute, which campaigns for environmentally sustainable policies.
Institute president Lester Brown said that about a quarter of a million people who fled the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina a year ago must now be classed as "refugees". "Interestingly, the country to suffer the most damage from a hurricane is also primarily responsible for global warming," he said.
The United States is the world's largest consumer of energy, but has refused to sign up to the Kyoto pact aimed at reducing emissions of gases that scientists say are to blame for heating up the Earth. Brown said many thousands of people who evacuated last year from New Orleans and other towns on the Mississippi and Louisiana coasts had no intention of returning.
"We estimate that at least 250 000 of them have established homes elsewhere and will not return," he said. "They no longer want to face the personal trauma and financial risks associated with rising seas and more destructive storms.
These evacuees are now climate refugees. "Many businesses have also deserted the coastal towns left ravaged by Katrina as insurance and other costs soar, the study said."As rising seas and more powerful hurricanes translate into higher insurance costs in these coastal communities, people are retreating inland," Brown said. "And just as companies migrate to regions with lower wages, they also migrate to regions with lower insurance costs. "The study also warned: "The experience with more destructive storms in recent years is only the beginning."Rising temperatures could melt glaciers and polar ice caps, raising sea levels and displacing coastal residents worldwide, it said."The flow of climate refugees to date numbers in the thousands, but if we do not quickly reduce CO2 (carbon dioxide) emissions, it could one day number in the millions," Brown said.