Migration has been one of the most debated issues in European and American politics over the past three years and will continue under the spotlight for the near to mid-term future at least. One of the biggest driving forces behind mass migration was largely ignored in media reports, campaign speeches, and government discussions. When it comes to migration, climate change and environmental degradation in general remain the elephants in the room. Climate change is not just a doomsday scenario that will cause mass migration somewhere in the distant future. It has already pushed millions of people out of their homes and this trend is likely to become exponentially worse in the coming years and decades.
An underlying factor
We often hear a great deal about a certain crisis or conflict, but rarely are we aware that an ecological crisis has its fingerprints all over it. One of the most notorious recent examples is the Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria, which has displaced more than 3 million people. (1) A little-known fact is that due to persistent droughts and unsustainable agricultural practices, Lake Chad, a vital source of water and nutrition for the region, shrank by 90 percent since 1963.(2) The poverty and famine produced by this ecological disaster were a perfect breeding ground for the violence that followed.
Another example is the civil war in Syria, which started during a severe three-year long drought, the worst on record. Water became scarce, crops failed year after year and around 1.5 million people were pushed out of the rural areas into the cities. Researchers, including those at the American Meteorological Society, attribute the abnormal drought frequency and intensity in the eastern Mediterranean to man-made climate change.(3)
South America is not spared the effects of the warming climate, either. The melting of the Andean glaciers decreases the amount of freshwater available to the inhabitants of the Bolivian highland, Altiplano. (4) Tensions between the inhabitants of the region and the mining and agro-industries, who are fighting for this vital resource, are increasing. The crisis is causing waves of migration towards the Amazon Basin, where people are turning to illegal mining and coca production — two activities that are hugely detrimental to the health of the ecosystem.
There are numerous other examples of massive displacements of people caused by ecological crises, from the atrocious heatwaves in the south of Pakistan(5) and the rapidly expanding deserts in northern China to the massive floods, droughts and forest fires plaguing Central America.(6)
Of course, climate change and deforestation will not give us the whole story, but if we only focus on the political and socioeconomic aspects of these migrations we will fail to solve them and we’ll certainly fail to prevent future crises. If we continue to ignore one of the main sources of these conflicts, we’re only going to see more and more migration and violence around the world.
The worst is yet to come
The current migratory crises are a pale preview of what we’re going to witness in the coming decades. When humans don’t have access to food or water, they move — that’s what we’ve done since the dawn of our species. Migration plunged the European Union into a deep political crisis, which keeps reshaping the political landscape.
The crisis remains a very polarizing issue, but pretty much everybody will agree on one thing: we are failing to manage it correctly. If two million refugees caused so much political turmoil, how is Europe going to deal with the unprecedented numbers of climate refugees who will be driven out of the Sahel in the coming decades due to climate change? United Nations Special Adviser on the Sahel Ibrahim Thiaw described the region as “arguably one of the most vulnerable to climate change [with] the largest number of people disproportionately affected by global warming.” Around 300 million people are living in one of the most environmentally degraded regions in the world. The UN projects temperature increases there to be 1.5 times higher than the global average.(7)
The planet is going to keep on warming, extreme weather events will keep on becoming more violent and frequent, sea levels are going to keep on rising. Even if we could magically halt all of our emissions, put an end to deforestation and end all pollution tomorrow, the consequences of the damage that we’ve done so far will unfold for many years. This shouldn’t discourage us from taking action; on the contrary, this fact only underlines our responsibility to act as urgently and as effectively as we can. We have to be prepared to deal with what’s headed our way in the near future, but we must do our best to mitigate any further damage.
The danger of denial
Denying the scientific reality of climate change is only exacerbating the crisis. It is paradoxical that politicians and pundits, who appear to be very concerned with immigration, are often outright denying the very existence of one of its major driving forces and are strongly opposed to measures that seek to mitigate its effects. We should argue about the solutions to global warming, but we need to agree on the objective scientific facts. Many left-leaning politicians are being praised simply for acknowledging the reality and severity of the climate crisis, but their lack of effective action speaks of another type of denial. The only people who are able to push the politicians out of their comfort zone of denial are the ones who vote for them.
Climate change is not felt the same way around the world; some regions are affected more severely than others. Rich industrialized nations living in temperate climates are in a much better position to adapt to the changing climate. We’re not feeling the same effects in the United States, at least for the moment, and we have the means to deal with super-hurricanes and prolonged droughts. Why should we embrace the responsibility to lead the action against climate change?
The most obvious reason is our own interest. If we fail to take effective and urgent action, we’re going to live in an increasingly unstable and violent world. The wealth of all nations depends on peace, trade and cooperation; a rapidly warming climate is not a place where any of these can thrive. Climate instability and environmental degradation lead to scarcity, poverty and famine. Our failure to address the ecological crises will inevitably create a world dominated by unprecedented mass migrations, violent local conflicts over dwindling resources, and ultimately war. Besides, all humans share a global ecosystem. The tallest walls and the strongest militaries can’t stop the atmospheric circulation or the water cycle.
It’s clear that we want to stop climate change, we want to preserve the remaining forests and we want to halt the pollution and pillage of the oceans. And for this to happen, we have to tell developing nations that they shouldn’t pursue the reckless industrial development that made us rich and powerful. We cleared our forests and burned all the coal and oil that we could get our hands on, but if we want to save the future of the planet we have to convince other countries like China, Brazil, India, Nigeria, Congo and Indonesia that they shouldn’t follow our example. They should preserve their forests, and opt for cleaner and more expensive energy sources. We should realize that we benefit directly from the health of the rainforests and the stability of the climate. We should do whatever we can to work with the local governments and create strong economic incentives for them to preserve and regenerate their forests, to choose sustainable development over faster economic growth and to implement strong and innovative environmental regulations.
No matter what action we take, in the coming years and decades we’re going to hear more and more about “climate refugees” and “ecological migrants.” But our actions today are going to determine the scale and the duration of these crises.
(1) The UN Refugee Agency – https://www.unhcr.org/nigeria-emergency.html
(2) “On the causes of the shrinking of Lake Chad“, H Gao, T J Bohn, E Podest, K C McDonald and D P Lettenmaier, http://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/6/3/034021
(3) The American Meteorological Society – https://journals.ametsoc.org/doi/10.1175/WCAS-D-13-00059.
(4) “Bolivian Andes: from climate change to human displacements?” Raoul Kaenzig, https://www.zobodat.at/pdf/IGF-Forschungsberichte_4_0047-0057.pdf
(5) Unprecedented heatwaves killed more than 1300 people in 2015, Reuters, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-pakistan-heatwave/pakistan-heatwave-kills-65-people-in-karachi-welfare-organization-idUSKCN1IM2AU
(6) Central America Is On Fire, NASA, https://www.nasa.gov/image-feature/goddard/central-america-is-on-fire
(7) UN: Sahel region one of the most vulnerable to climate change, the Climate Centre https://www.climatecentre.org/news/1066/un-sahel-region-one-of-the-most-vulnerable-to-climate-change
Steve the Bartender