Max Jerneck, March 2009
Environmental problems caused and exacerbated by climate change are currently responsible for an estimated 50 million refugees worldwide (UNEP/GRID-Arendal). That number is expected to multiply in the coming decades, as droughts, water shortages and natural disasters are made increasingly severe by global warming. According to Oxford Professor Norman Myers, the number of people uprooted due to climate change will reach close to 200 million by 2050 (Myers 1995). Environmentally induced forced migration as a major problem has long been acknowledged by scholars, NGOs and the UN, but has yet to make the agendas of nation states. A change may be underway, however, with the realization that the prospect of mass migration is not only a humanitarian issue but a matter of national security. Two recent official reports have the potential to influence policy makers in the European Union. One of them is authored by the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU), a scientific advisory body to the German government. The document proposes an expansion of German and EU immigration policy to include preemptive measures to stem emerging migration flows. A similar message is proposed by Javier Solana, High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy of the EU, in a report to the European Council.
The reports state that climate change causes forced migration directly as well as indirectly. Environmental degradation can generate dangerous competition for resources that may escalate into armed conflicts or at least intensify already existing conflicts. Moreover, migration flows generated by these wars can in themselves fuel tensions and strife elsewhere by adding population pressure to the receiving locations. Forced migration is rarely mono-causal; multiple push factors usually coincide in driving people from their homes. Overpopulation, as well as climate change, can lead to environmental degradation which directly or indirectly, through falling crop yields, water shortages or (un)natural disasters, forces people to pick up and leave. Political factors such as the strength of governments determine whether migration problems are manageable or unmanageable. Environmental factors are thus heavily intertwined with economic, social and political factors, and climate change cannot be labeled as the root cause. This incertitude is one of the reasons that the term ‘climate refugee’ is a contested one. The UN convention on refugees does not include environmental factors, neither does it include internally displaced persons, a fact that excludes the large majority of environmental migrants.
Although climate change as a cause of forced migration may be contested in many cases, in the case of sea level rise the correlation between climate change and forced migration is indisputable. Sea level rise is arguably the most menacing of all of the many environmental threats associated with climate change. There are already a number of low-lying islands that suffer from rising sea levels to the extent that they are being evacuated. Among the most severely threatened are the Maldives, Tuvalu, Kiribati and the Cartelet Islands of Papua New Guinea. In fact, the president of The Maldives is looking to buy land on which to relocate his fellow citizens. The lowest lying parts of these islands are being inundated, and salt water is leaking into the soil, killing crops.
“Canaries in the Coal Mine”
The U.S. is also affected. Among the first modern examples of climate refugees were the inhabitants of the Alaskan village of Shishmaref, located on the tiny island of Sarichef. Due to rising temperatures, the tundra beneath the village began to thaw and consequently started sinking into the sea. In 2004 the entire village had to be moved to an inland location. On the American East Coast, parts of Chesapeake Bay are severely threatened (Glick, Inkley, Staudt 2007).
To most low lying countries, the most immediate threat is not outright submersion but the increased severity of storms. Since 1970, the percentage of category 4-5 hurricanes has doubled (Webster 2005). The Caribbean is particularly hard hit. An illustrative example is the island of Grenada. In 2004 hurricane Ivan caused damages to 90 percent of the island’s buildings. If tropical storms as powerful as Ivan begin hitting the island every five or ten years, sustaining a functioning economy in Grenada will become practically impossible.
Small low lying islands are but the first victims on the frontline of climate change; they are the ‘canaries in the coalmine’, as Alaskan climate scientist Gunter Weller, speaking of the Shismaref example is quoted by the BBC. If sea levels rise as predicted, areas far more populated than the currently threatened small island states will face submersion. In the risk zone are some of the most populous areas of world, e.g., the coastal plains of Bangladesh and Eastern China. In addition to sea level rise, global warming is likely to inflict severe water shortages on these areas when the fresh water reserves of the Himalayan glaciers melt away. Rivers supplied by Himalayan glacial melt support a region encompassing roughly half of the world’s population (Biermann & Boas 2008). Even a small percentage of these people becoming uprooted would amount to a significant number of refugees.
Most environmentally-induced migration taking place today occurs within and between developing countries. The hardest hit countries, e.g., Bangladesh, are among the least capable of coping with the growing problem. With overpopulation intensifying in developing nations, migrants will become increasingly compelled to try crossing into rich nations as well. For disappearing nations like Tuvalu, the inhabitants do not have the choice but to leave their country.
“Europe must expect substantially increased migratory pressure” in the coming decades, states the report ordered by the European Commission to the European Council, prepared by Javier Solana, High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy. The potential destabilizing effect of this pressure means that it is in the self-interest of the European Union to address the issue. The same sentiment is expressed in a 2008 report on climate change and security drafted by the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU). A central message in the report is that the countries of the European Union must expand their immigration policy to include pre-emptive measures against migration flows. This can be achieved through treaties between European and potential migrant producing countries, particularly in Northern Africa. Several such treaties have been signed so far, but their foci have been limited to reactive provisions such as internment in refugee camps.
Combating migrant flows simply by erecting fences and tightening asylum rules is deemed inadvisable by the WBGU as these measures will, at best, work only in the short term. Instead, the WBGU report advocates collaboration between the EU and African countries in instituting preemptive measures such as coastal and irrigation management systems, disaster prevention instruments and early warning systems. The report also states that “[e]migration can […] be reduced by exerting an influence on social, economic and political factors; for instance, by promoting economic growth and more equitable distribution of its benefits. Specific factors that reduce individuals’ vulnerability are effective social and micro-insurance systems, adequate health provision and strong government institutions (WBGU 126). “ For these policies to be effective, significant changes in the political climate of the EU and the African countries in question are needed.
Conflict vs. Collaboration Scenarios
To illustrate potential developments of the environmental refugee situation, two hypothetical scenarios for the relations between the EU and Africa are laid out in the report: one of confrontation and the other of collaboration. In the conflict scenario, climate change-induced desertification in the Sahel would remain unchecked, triggering migratory flows northwards, initially mainly to North Africa. Most of the migrants will end up living in giant slums of cities like Cairo and Algiers. Desperate conditions in these areas then compel many of them to try to escape to Europe. Tensions caused by the massive population pressure in the already heavily populated areas of North Africa would also increase and threaten to spark violence, which would lead to additional emigration. Europe would react by fortifying itself, spending billions of Euros on fences and border patrol, measures that in the long run would not be sufficient to block out immigrants.
In the collaboration scenario, EU countries would combat migration flows at the root, with methods such as anti-desertification schemes. Avoiding mechanization of agriculture is also proposed, as it would prevent job losses (although it might not be optimal for productivity). Allowing quotas of work migrants is another of the provisions recommended. The primary way of countering mass migration would be to defuse dangerous tensions by granting a larger share of the population in the effected countries access to wealth and political influence. In other words, the collaboration scenario presupposes extensive political and economic reforms in African countries.
The WBGU does not propose a change in the UN convention of refugees, as that might entail the risk of lowering the existing standard of protection. Instead, an additional convention on climate refugees is proposed.
The strategies suggested by the European reports could in essence be translated to suit policy makers in the U.S. by replacing Africa with Latin America and the Caribbean, the two biggest contributors to U.S. immigration. In the some Eastern Caribbean islands, half of the population has already emigrated to North America (Myers 1995). As mentioned, increased migration from these countries can be expected due to the prospected intensification of tropical storms. Countries like Haiti suffer from other severe environmental problems that will only get worse with climate change.
Central America and Mexico are the biggest sources of migrants to the United States. Arguably, most migrants leaving Mexico do so for economic reasons. Many of them are escaping severe poverty. However, their impoverishment can in many cases be traced to root environmental causes. Deforestation, overpopulation and an inequitable distribution of land are the main causes of environmental degradation in Mexico (Myers 1995). Together with inadequate social policies, these factors are responsible for driving tens of millions of peasants from their homes. In addition to man-made problems, the country suffers from severe water shortages. Rainfall is sparse and highly variable. Surface water is concentrated to the coastal plains, whereas three quarters of the population and half of all croplands are located in the semi-arid central highlands (Myers 1995). Climate change will exacerbate droughts and other environmental problems, causing increased migration.
People fleeing their homes due to climatic factors will be a standard feature of the 21 century. In addition to being a moral issue that the rich world, as main contributors to the problem, should take responsibility for, it is a security issue as well. The forest fires in Australia in February of 2009, which killed around 200 people and uprooted thousands more can be seen as an example that rich nations cannot expect to be spared. Climate induced forced migration is a serious problem that they sooner or later will have to face. As of yet, the problem is not addressed specifically in the agenda of any developed country. For instance, New Zealand has agreed to host the climate refugees of Tuvalu, but does not recognize them as such. Unlike previous reports on climate induced forced migration, the Solana and the WBGU reports are drafted by agencies with close affiliations to policy makers. In that sense they could represent a significant step toward recognition and action.
UNEP/GRID-Arendal, Fifty million climate refugees by 2010, UNEP/GRID-Arendal Maps and Graphics Library, (Accessed 23 February 2009)
World in Transition – Climate Change as a Security Risk. German Advisory Council on Global Change. PDF
Climate Change and Security: Recommendations of the High Representative on follow-up to the High Representative and Commission report on Climate Change and International Security. Brussels, 18 December 2008. PDF
Protecting Climate Refugees: The Case for a Global Protocol, Frank Biermann and Ingrid Boas. Environment Magazine November-December 2008
Hurricane Ivan Devestates Grenada, Harold Quash, 9 Sept 2004, The Independent.
The Chesapeake Bay and Global Warming: A Paradise Lost for Hunters, Anglers, and Outdoor Enthusiasts? Patty Glick, Doug Inkley and Amanda Staudt, National Wildlife Federation. PDF
P. J. Webster, G. J. Holland, J. A. Curry, H.-R. Chang, Changes in Tropical Cyclone Number, Duration, and Intensity in a Warming Environment. Science 16 September 2005:
Vol. 309. no. 5742, pp. 1844 – 1846.
Environmental Exodus: An Emergent Crisis in the Global Arena Norman Myers, Climate Institute, 1995.
Paradise almost lost: Maldives seek to buy a new homeland, Randeep Ramesh, 10 November 2008, The Guardian.
'Frightening' UN Climate Report May Be Too Optimistic, Volker Mrasek, 19 November 2007, Spiegel Online International.
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