Another facet of climate, refugee crisis

September 26, 2017 by Denis Pombriant

Climate refugee is an odd term, one that many people are not familiar with but climate refugee status is something we’re already dealing with. The question is how bad we let the situation become before recognizing it as a major event that’s part of the climate crisis and not some cluster of unrelated events.

According to a 2105 report from the United Nations, the population of international migrants, which includes climate migrants, reached 244 million that year up from 173 million in 2000. In 2015, 67 percent of international migrants lived in Europe (76 million) or Asia 75 million). Also India had the largest number of citizens living abroad (16 million) followed by Mexico (12 million). Most migrants (157 million in 2015) came from middle-income countries, they didn’t necessarily want to become migrants, the situation was mandated by multiple forces.

For instance, when a region becomes too arid or too wet to farm it can no longer support the population living there and people begin to migrate to places that are more hospitable. Since this is a form of basic survival, they often don’t respect international borders. The best example of climate induced migration has been Syria and we should not let the politics of the region blind us to the underlying causes.

Drought hampered wheat farming in Syria, forcing agricultural people to migrate to cities where crowding and resource scarcity contributed to widespread dissatisfaction with government see references here and here. It didn’t help that the despotic government of Bashar al Assad was already authoritarian.

Syrians demanded change during the Arab Spring revolt that also saw leadership changes in Tunisia and Egypt, as well as swelling demands in other nations like Iran. At the time, it looked possible that a people could peacefully rise up and overturn decades of tyrannical government. But rather than reform or simply leave Syria, the Assad family doubled down and started a civil war. Ordinary citizens armed with nothing more than cell phones reported on the uprisings across North Africa and the Levant in minute detail, vividly describing atrocities conducted by their governments.

The war and growing food insecurity made life impossible for a large number of Syrians who then took to the Mediterranean in an effort to reach safe haven in Greece and Europe. Many died in the crossing but many others made it, and the diaspora has destabilized many European countries and has contributed to the rise of nationalist and populist groups demanding that their countries’ borders be closed and new immigrants be rejected.

The UK went so far as to pass a referendum, Brexit, to remove itself from the European Union, in part to prevent a massive wave of refugees from reaching Britain. Brexit is a slow-burning issue with no one sure of its outcome and the lack of certainty weighs on the world. Syria was the most prominent example but refugees from dry parts of the planet are becoming a serious issue in many areas.

There were good short-term reasons for the negative reactions to the Syrian diaspora. None of the EU countries had enough resources, such as housing for starters to enable them to take in large numbers of refugees who, for the most part, did not speak the local language and were basically unemployable. (We should note that Germany and Turkey have taken in large numbers of Syrians.) The refugees’ presence also heightened Western anxiety over terrorism, which further destabilized the West.

And all this started with too little rain and cynical (or inept) political leadership supported by outside sources, such as the Kremlin, which backed Assad in the civil war to maintain control of the faltering country. Climate change destabilized a local government and the disruption reverberated all the way to London and Washington. That’s just one example of how climate change can destabilize the world and how civilization is not prepared to deal with the massive shifts climate change can cause.

There’s much we can do to arrest and possibly reverse some aspects of climate change and at worst there are work-arounds to mitigate the most disastrous consequences like major migrations. The first step, as in most 12-step programs, is to recognize and admit we have a problem.

The issue we have to deal with is climate change and it’s no longer acceptable to coquettishly deny its reality by questioning its causes. Luckily there are numerous solutions taking shape or available today. They’re supported by free market activity, which means there’s little red tape. But we all need to understand that there are solutions and then bravely venture forth to embrace them.


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