The world’s poorest countries stand to lose the most from climate change. Poorer countries tend to be on tropical latitudes, whereas wealthier countries (which, conversely, have often contributed the most in terms of historical CO2 emissions) are usually situated in more temperate zones. Richer countries also have greater resources to spend on mitigating the impact of climate change. So, the poorest countries will be hardest hit.
As temperatures increase and extreme weather patterns grow more common, could large numbers of people start seeking sanctuary in developed countries? The recent influx of refugees from Syria and other countries has caused political chaos in Europe. Could climate change provoke an even bigger refugee crisis?
The UN warns that people displaced across borders by environmental disasters exist in a legal limbo, not protected by current international agreements on refugees. Nevertheless, some analysts predict millions of people will flee their countries because of the effects of climate change (though the numbers fluctuate wildly, depending on how one defines a “climate refugee”, from tens of thousands to one billion).
We had a comment sent in from Yannick, who believes Syrians are quite possibly the first ‘climate refugees’. Certainly, some have argued that a severe drought in Syria was responsible for rural farmers moving en masse into cities, leading ultimately to protests and, ultimately, civil war. Others argue that this is a misguided attempt to ‘securatise’ the climate change debate.
To get a response, we spoke to Alex Randall, Climate Change & Migration Project Manager at Climate Outreach. What would he say to Yannick?
The short answer is no. People fleeing Syria are fleeing conflict. However, there is a debate about the role climate change may have played in contributing to the start of that conflict. There is some evidence suggesting that a very powerful drought drove many rural Syrians into cities. Extra numbers in urban gave more energy to protests and rebellion against the regime. With these extra numbers in Syria’s cities the start of an uprising against the regime became possible. So climate change may have played a role in creating the circumstances for the uprising. The uprising was (as we know) unsuccessful. However the regime did not completely quash the uprising either. And this unstable situation lead to a wider conflict.
For another perspective, we also put Yannick’s comment to Ingrid Boas, Assistant Professor at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. Her research includes a focus on environmentally-induced migration and climate security.
I would to say to Yannick that I disagree with that statement. I would say that Syrian refugees are political and war refugees. Also, I would say that many scientific studies have been conducted on climate displacement, and when environmental change plays an important factor people don’t necessarily go very far. For instance, I went to Bangladesh recently where people were affected by a cyclone, and people were trying to rebuild their houses even though water kept on pouring in because dams were destroyed. People didn’t really have the means to actually move away. Some did, and then they went to a nearby city.
[Environmental disasters are] not so strong a driver that people go all the way to Europe. If they do, then usually there is another driver that is really making you want to go far away from your home country, for instance that you’re scared of your government or your life is really in danger and you’re not receiving any help. So, for that reason, I would say Syrians are war refugees. Even though, indeed, studies have shown that drought played a role in internal migration; but even then migration is multi-causal, and I’ve also read that what made many people move to the city was that the regime had stopped various subsidies which got problematic for farming activities. So, it’s often an inter-linkage between different factors.
We also had a comment from Björn, who thinks Europe needs to take climate refugees seriously. But how do we determine what a ‘climate refugee’ actually is? We asked Alex Randall what he would say:
It’s almost impossible to pick out a group of people who have been displaced by climate change. But this doesn’t mean that climate change isn’t forcing people to move. This is a theoretical and legal conundrum! Climate change will alter patterns of disasters like typhoons and droughts and make some of them worse. In the future this could mean more people are forced to move. But it’s hard to say that any given disaster was caused just by climate change. So we can say that climate has played a role in changing patterns of displacement. But not that individual people are climate refugees.
To get another perspective, we also spoke to Andrew Holland, the American Security Project’s Director of Studies and Senior Fellow for Energy and Climate.
First of all, we should have a definition for climate refugees, and it needs to be discussed and debated throughout the international system. At this point, we don’t know what is a climate refugee. Is it when there’s a drought? Or is it only when, for instance, your home disappears entirely? When the seas rise and the place you were living is suddenly underwater? Or is it something else?
People migrate for different reasons, and it’s often very difficult to tease out whether they’re migrating because they cannot live in their home for climate reasons, or for reasons of conflict, or are they migrating for economic opportunity? It’s often several of those put together. So to figure out who’s a climate refugee, who’s an economic migrant, and who’s a refugee from war is difficult. We need to think about that…
Will climate change lead to an even bigger refugee crisis? Was climate change and drought an important factor in the outbreak of civil war in Syria? And how do we tell what a ‘climate refugee’ actually is? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!