Climate Change Will Drive the Largest Refugee Crisis in History

When the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War ended, the world held its breath in anticipation as humanity entered a new era that promised a peace we had not known in history. Francis Fukuyama named this period “the end of history”. The end of a history of war, inequality, autocratic regimes, and a global arms race that had ravaged mankind.

The naïve expectation was that humanity would enter a new era of progress and globalization that would reduce the inequalities and the suffering of the world. But thirty-years later, we are slowly coming to terms with the fact that a global economy and a society built on the idea of infinite growth and infinite production has been depleting the world’s finite resources and driving our planet to the brink of extinction.

Already in the 1990s, the United Nations warned that the greatest single impact of climate change could be on human migration. As the US and Europe lock their borders to the Central American, Syrian, Afghan and South Sudanese refugee crises, these are just a dismal premonition of the much larger climate-fuelled forced migrations that will come.

Today, people are three times more likely to be forced from their homes by climate-fuelled disasters than by conflict.

Yet we continue to ignore the sound of ice sheets plummeting into the ocean three times faster than in the last decade, from the refuge and the delusion of our global cities. Flashing storefronts and rumbling motors conceal what is happening outside our fortresses of globalization. Much of the media chooses to echo the shouts of shoppers after their latest bargain on Black Friday and turns a deaf ear to the pleas of this Earth and the 18 million environmental refugees currently denied access to the most basic of human rights.

Today, a number of ecosystems are suffering trophic cascades that could lead to their collapse, such as the Amazon rainforest, the coral reef systems and the Arctic. In the last four decades, the frequency of natural disasters has increased three times. By 2100, up to six natural disasters at once could threaten some areas of the planet. Author of The Uninhabitable Earth, David Wallace-Wells asserts how ” for every half of a degree of warming, societies will see between 10 and 20 increase in the likelihood of armed conflict”.

This complete dismantlement of our ecosystems and our social fabric built within these ecosystems will manifest itself in migratory flows of an unprecedented nature in the near future.

Climate change is already a key driver of current forced migrations, like the Central American mass migration to the US, where Guatemalan highland farmers are unable to grow crops on land that has been productive for centuries. Or the climate impacts on the Middle East, the Maghreb and the Sahel, where food and water systems have been severely affected by droughts, wildfires and harvest failures, triggering social breakdown and conflict and forcing many to migrate to Europe.

But we must not delude ourselves into thinking that in Europe and the US we are safe from these climate impacts, and that it is others who will be left to suffer the ravages of our war against nature.

The Global North will not be Noah’s Ark when the climate flood arrives. It will not be a bastion of green land with prosperous living conditions while the rest of the world contorts in an effort to survive a crumbling biosphere. By 2080, at the current rate of emissions, southern Europe will be in permanent extreme drought. The rise in sea levels as well as flooding caused by the centrifugal speed of our melting ice-caps could mean that cities like New York, London, Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Brussels are all underwater by 2050.

David Wallace-Wells, provides data in his book proving that if the planet is 5 degrees warmer we will have 50% more people to feed and 50% less grain. And if we reach this point, the competition for what is left of the Earth will be ruthless and cruel, forcing millions to flee for survival.

In 2018, the UN estimated that by 2050 there could be between 25 million and 1 billion environmental migrants.

Today the most widely cited estimate is 200 million climate refugees by 2050. Even if we do not reach 1 billion people forcefully displaced by climate change, 200 million people translates into one in every 45 people in the world who will have been displaced by climate change.

While sudden natural disasters are more likely to result in mass displacement, gradual environmental degradation such as desertification, reduction of soil fertility, coastal erosion and a rise in sea levels will be the catalysts of long-term forced migrations. The National Center for Climate Restoration has warned that ” climate change intersects with pre-existing national security risks to function as a threat multiplier, contributing to escalating cycles of humanitarian and socio-political crises, conflict and forced migration”.

Information is required at every stage of the humanitarian emergency management cycle. But currently there is not an organization which is exclusively collecting data on environmental refugees, which makes it both significantly more difficult to understand the magnitude of this crisis and the emergency response required. Environmental refugees are in a legal limbo where neither their legal status nor their existence is recognized nor properly documented.

Despite the fact we are hurtling towards the greatest refugee crisis in human history, International Law does not yet recognise the term “climate refugee”. This is why current UN literature uses the term “migrants”.

The United Nations’ 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol relating to the status of refugees restricts the definition of refugee to those fleeing persecution in their home country. But a name is not merely a name. When it comes to International Law, the definition that becomes accepted conditions the assistance the international community feels obligated to provide to environmental asylum seekers.

The word “migrant” is problematic because it suggests that this migration is a choice: “climate migrant” implies the pull of the destination more than the push of the climate impacts in the home country. The term migrant diminishes the responsibility of the international community for the welfare of these asylum seekers, as economic migrants are not awarded the same protections as refugees.

As the International Organization for Migration has asserted, “forced climate migrants fall through the cracks of international refugee and immigration policy-and there is considerable resistance to the idea of expanding the definition of political refugees to incorporate climate refugees”.

As these asylum seekers are unable to prove the required political persecution International Law specifies, they are being left to suffer the impacts of climate change without protection.

The International Community could come together and amend the International Legislation to reflect the present reality we face. But even though we are living through the dawn of this crisis, we are confronted with political resistance. Host-countries are extremely reluctant to accept the term “refugee”, as this would compel them to offer climate refugees the same protections as the political refugees they are scrambling to avoid from entering their borders.

Climate-triggered forced migrations will impact the poorest communities more severely.

About 80 % of all people displaced in the last decade live in Asia. Currently third of the global population living in extreme poverty live in this continent. Oxfam asserts that people in poor countries, who bear the least responsibility for global carbon pollution, are most at risk.

The poorest communities will suffer the most direct climate-related impacts of the climate crisis. Globally, countries with lower GDPs will experience the greatest increase in temperatures, with deadly heat conditions predicted for more than 100 days a year in West Africa, tropical South America, the Middle East and South-East Asia. The World Bank has estimated that in South Asia one hundred million could be dragged into extreme poverty by the climate impact of our current rate of emissions.

The poorest communities and countries will also have the least resilient infrastructures for coping with the immediate impacts of climate-triggered natural disasters and for mitigating its long term effects.

These communities will be even more severely impacted when food production is insufficient to feed the global population and food prices skyrocket. David Wallace Wells asserts that “climate-driven water shortages or crop failures will push climate refugees into nearby regions already struggling with resource scarcity”.

Those who remain in the regions ravaged by climate impacts will find themselves in fragile and failed states that can fall prey to civil violence, terrorism, or military coups -or a confluence of the three.

Forced migrations are always deeply gendered. Women make up a disproportionate number of casualties in the wake of natural disasters: in the Indonesian, Sri Lankan and Bangladeshi tsunamis, 80% of casualties were women. Displaced women are also particularly vulnerable to high levels of gender-based and sexual violence. Violence against women increases in humanitarian crises, and studies have shown that the means of protection against this violence likewise diminishes. Female abandonment is also widespread in times of crisis, particularly in cases of food shortage, which will be one of the most direct impacts on the poorest communities in the climate crisis.

The Environmental Refugees of the future could be contained in global refugee hotspots -limiting their transit and securing the international order in the habitable parts of the Earth.

The International Organization for Migration asserts that “as is already the case with political refugees, it is likely that the burden of providing for climate migrants will be borne by the poorest countries – those least responsible for emissions of greenhouse gases”. This is already the case of refugee hotspots -or contention-zones- such as the Turkish Border with Europe, the Greek Islands, or the Mexican US Border.

Pallister-Wilkins describes how these hotspots are “deployed to secure both life and a liberal political order” and that refugee hotspots “have gone from being places of transit and registration to places of effective containment”.

In these hotspots, asylum claims are left to pile up for months or years, and refugees left in a limbo of vulnerability. Medicins Sans Frontiers provides data in its 2017 report showing that “men, women and children seeking protection in Europe have spent up to a year in poorly adapted and unwinterised temporary shelters, with inadequate access to basic services including heating and hot water”

In these camps, asylum seekers are prone to depression, suicide and sexual abuse and yet a doctor may only visit the camp once a week, at most. Significant data suggests many women are choosing to wear a nappy to sleep, because of fear of being sexually assaulted in the communal bathrooms at night.

It is possible that this disparity of resources and this reduced mobility in the face of climate change will lead to climate caste system.

In the near future, humanity may become divided between those who can protect themselves and flee climate-related disaster and conflict, and those who are left behind. Our current instrumentalisation of the humanitarianism system represented by our failure to provide asylum for the current people fleeing violence and disaster may very well represent a dystopian future for climate refugees on a much wider scale.

As David Wallace-Wells says in The Uninhabitable Earth: “what is embedded in these hotspots can represent what the world will look like on a massive scale in just a few decades – intensified by a competition for the bare-minimum resources these current refugees now have, such as medical supplies, food and other emergency and development aid”.

And as this happens, we are retreating into virulent forms of nationalism and erecting new walls and barbed wires between humans. But what is most needed in this is crisis of civilization is international cooperation, to tackle both climate change and the migrations it is spearheading.

As Prof. Hans Joachim Schellnhuber warns, “climate change is now reaching the end-game, where very soon humanity must choose between taking unprecedented action, or accepting that it has been left too late and bear the consequences.”

By Carlota Nunez Strutt.


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