Climate change is perhaps the single biggest challenge our species faces in the future. We often hear about the damage climate change will directly inflict on our civilization: increased severe weather events, extreme drought, sea-level rise and desertification. What sometimes gets less focus is the human cost of climate change. As these changes to climate and extreme weather events happen they will inevitably leave large numbers of people without homes or livelihoods. Many of these people, unable to stay where they are, will go on the move becoming refugees or migrants seeking survival elsewhere.
Migrants and Refugees:
As it stands, the UN does not recognise those forced to migrate because of environmental disasters or climatic changes to be refugees. According to the UN Conventions, refugees are those persons who are forced to leave their home country because of war, violence or persecution. Exactly why they are reluctant to use the word refugee is debatable. They have argued that the term climate change refugee is misleading and undermines efforts to protect actual refugees. Instead they often prefer the term environmental migrant. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) has launched a dedicated project to study environmental migration called Migration, Environment and Climate Change: Evidence for Policy (MECLEP). From this they have developed their own working definition of an environmental migrant:
“Environmental migrants are persons or groups of persons who, predominantly for reasons of sudden or progressive change in the environment that adversely affects their lives or living conditions, are obliged to leave their habitual homes, or choose to do so, either temporarily or permanently, and who move either within their country or abroad” (Glossary on Migration, 2nd Edition, International Migration Law No. 25, IOM, Geneva)
Whilst quite an unwieldly sentence this is probably the most comprehensive definition for environmental migrant developed so far. I do not object to using the term ‘climate change refugee’ because I believe that the differences between an environmental migrant and a refugee are largely academic. However, in a desire to remain accurate I will largely be using the IOM’s terminology.
Estimates for the number of environmental migrants we may have to deal with are quite controversial with different experts disputing the numbers, not least because climate change on this scale is unprecedented in recorded Human history. Furthermore, not everyone in regions affected by climate change will migrate, some may be physically or financially unable to whilst others may not feel motivated enough to do so – after all, moving to another country is no small task. The estimate most often quoted is that there will be somewhere in the region of 200 or 250 million environmental migrants by 2050which if true would be more than the all the migrants and refugees in the world today. This figure was produced by British environmentalist Professor Norman Myers however his methods in reaching this figure are not universally accepted and even he admits that his method is not definitive. Others have suggested lower and higher numbers. TheEnvironmental Justice Foundation (EJF), a non-profit NGO that campaigns for the resolution of human rights abuses and environmental issues in the developing world, has placed the figure of environmental migrants as around 150 million by 2050 but with up to 600 million more people at potential risk of becoming displaced. Whatever the actual number in the end it is clear it will be in the hundreds of millions and will likely be beyond anything we have faced before.
One of the unique problems with many environmental migration cases is that –unlike political refugees or those fleeing a natural disaster– they may have no home to return to. Once a region has been desertified by rising temperatures or been submerged beneath the rising waves it is unlikely that they will ever be recovered, at least not with present technology. As such once people are forced to leave these regions they cannot return and need to be permanently resettled somewhere else. Temporary solutions such as refugee camps are not going to be viable in the long term and unless we want to see our cities globally become blighted by shanty towns and ghettos then we need to seriously start looking at permanent resettlement and integration of these people into our societies. Countries with lots of uninhabited space such as Russia, Canada or the US may find themselves under increasing pressure to free up some of this space for new colonisation.
Effects of Climate Change –Desertification:
The first and most imminent climate change effect will be the large rise in global temperatures resulting in extreme drought and desertification in large areas of the planet. The regions at greatest risk include much of Africa, the Middle East, India, China, the Andes, and parts of Central America and the Southern USA. In these regions high temperatures and shrinking water supplies will create expanding deserts that will devastate agriculture and make daily life difficult. In some places by the end of the century the temperatures may be so high during the day that it becomes impossible for Human beings to survive outside trapping people indoors and making survival difficult.
This year has already seen the Middle East experience one of the worst heatwaves on record, affecting nations from Morocco to Iran. In July temperatures in Kuwait were recorded at a scorching 54C (129.2 F), the hottest temperature ever recorded outside Death Valley in California –the hottest place on Earth. In Iraq, the government has had to hold public holidays, closing schools and government offices, because it’s too hot to go outside. In spite of this some people were reported as still going into work just so they could have access to air conditioning since, due to power shortages, only those who can afford their own generator can maintain air conditioning units.
Meanwhile, earlier in the year, in May, India was hit by a similar heatwave with temperatures reaching a recording breaking 51 C in some places. Besides causing problems for daily life, it resulted in the destruction of crops across 13 of India’s states resulting in a large flow of people out of the countryside into the cities, creating new shanty towns as desperate people looked for work and food. Hundreds of people died nationwide either of heatstroke, malnutrition or in some cases they committed suicide rather than suffer the indignities of living in shanty towns.
Europe is already seeing the results of this climate migration. The upsurge in migrants and refugees from West Africa has been connected to the decline in agriculture due to desertification in the region, forcing people, particularly young men, to head to Europe seeking work so they can help their families back home. Meanwhile, the Syrian Civil War has been connected to a similar decline in agriculture and some have argued that it is more than a coincidence that the war started at the same time as a prolonged drought that had decimated traditional agriculture, creating legions of jobless young men with families to feed and support. It is possible that partof the attraction of groups like ISIS is that they offer money and food to their supporters who have few other avenues.
Effects of Climate Change –Flooding:
A type of climate change migration that the world has yet to face but will as we get deeper into the 21st century are those people displaced by coastal flooding and erosion created by the melting of the Earth’s ice caps. This is a disaster that will impact all the world’s nations in some way. The first casualties will be small islands and river deltas. Indeed, within a few decades entire nations in the Pacific and Indian Oceans may have been consumed including Tuvalu and the Maldives. Furthermore, some of the world’s river deltas (e.g. the Ganges, the Nile, Yangtze or Mississippi), often among the most densely populated regions in the world, may be rapidly disappearing too leaving cities like Dhaka, a megacity of some 9 million people in the greater Dhaka area, underwater. As time goes on large areas of the world will become inundated with some countries such as the Netherlands losing nearly half their land area. It is estimated that some 147-216 million people live on land that, since it is either below or near sea level, could be lost before the century is out.
Indeed, in 2014 we saw our first environmental migrant case involving sea level rise. In a landmark court ruling in New Zealand, a man and his family were granted the right to remain in New Zealand because their homeland, the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu, being just 2 meters above sea level at its highest point, would likely be underwater by the time his children would reach adulthood.
What is evident from the sheer numbers of people we are talking about is that no one country can deal with mass migration and a humanitarian disaster of this scale. Thus, it will be necessary for the nations of the world to work together globally to develop solutions.
It is a sad truth that the wealthiest countries in the world, those of Europe and North America, are those who, in the medium term, will suffer least from the direct effects of climate change. That isn’t to say we will get off free, storms, floods and droughts are all set to become more common and parts of Europe and North America may be inundated or desertified. However, with our greater resources, developed economies and relatively temperate climates we are in better position to hold out against climate change. Thus, it is inevitable that it is to these regions that climate migrants or refugees will eventually flee to and it is the countries of these regions that will play the largest role in any kind of coordinated response to the crisis.
Unfortunately, thus far, developing a coordinated response to mass migration seems a distant goal. The migrant crisis in Europe over the past few years is a good example of how utterly unprepared the governments and societies of Europe and the developed world are for such a crisis. The bickering and infighting amongst the leaders of the EU does not inspire confidence. If the EU, UN and other world powers do not start making plans and strategies for dealing with this crisis now then millions of people will perish or be thrown into extreme poverty whilst those countries on the borders of the developed world will crumble under the humanitarian burden. Perhaps what worries me most about the response to the crisis is the hostility it has generated towards the migrants and the attitude of some countries, such as Hungary, Poland and even to an extent the UK, that the solution is simply to keep them out. If we are seeing this kind of racist and xenophobic hatred now, what will happen when the number of migrants coming into Europe has doubled or trebled as the decades go on? Will the next great genocide of Human history be not against our own people but against those fleeing their destroyed homes and looking for our mercy and compassion?
I don’t know the answer to that but the fact that it isn’t beyond imagining is scary. We cannot afford to wait for our political leadership to catch up with this emerging crisis. This isn’t some far off event that we don’t need to worry about, we are starting to see the first environmental migrants now and they are but the tip of the iceberg. We must start now discussing this emerging crisis, bringing it to public attention and demanding our leaders cooperate to develop a coordinated and internationally agreed response to refugees and migrants. This involves putting money into the development of infrastructure in the developing world to cope with climate change, putting aside lands in developed countries where those who cannot return home can settle and providing the infrastructure necessary to integrate and settle these people. As with climate change in general, this is not an issue we can deal with on our own as single nations, it can only be dealt with by the combined united efforts of all nations working together. As I said in my recent article on nationalism, we must abandon this idea of nationhood and borders, nationalism is obsolete. As EU President Jean-Claude Juncker recently said, “…borders are the worst invention ever made by politicians”. We must stop thinking about the world in terms of nations, countries, borders, and cultivate a new reality: One world, one Human species with one identity.
Michael is an aspiring writer and blogger based in Leeds UK. He writes on history, politics, religion, science and other topics