Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Climate Change is a Main Cause of the World's Refugee Crisis

It’s not too late to mitigate what comes next for climate change, but it is almost too late.

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Jun 29 2017, 7:30pm

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

This is the first in an ongoing series that will hone in on the various ways climate migration is shaping the future, but particularly how it's shaping the present -- and what you can do to help combat the effects of a warming planet, full of displaced people.

Of the numerous threats to humanity that compete for our attention every day, the most urgent in its scope and severity is climate change. The second is the refugee crisis. Yet it's only in the last five years or so that researchers and aid organizations have begun to get any traction on the idea of a critical relationship between the two.

Climate migration -- the myriad interconnected ways in which global warming is accelerating global human displacement -- is a developing field of study with a growing body of evidence. Climate change is poised to become the largest driver of human migration in the world, and still there's at least a decent chance you've never heard anyone talk about it.

The most important thing to know about climate migration is that it is inevitable. Right now there are fewer than 1 million people living in regions where the average temperature during the hottest month of the year is higher than the range within which the human body can function.

The central aim of the Paris agreement was to keep global temperature increase below 2℃, or 3.6 in Fahrenheit, from pre-industrial levels. Ideally, we'd stay below 1.5℃ (2.7℉). But doing the minimum of the treaty's outlined commitments would only keep the temperature from rising past somewhere between 2.6℃ and 3.1℃. The implications of even the extra fraction of one degree Celsius are profound; the human body isn't built to survive much more.

If we all do nothing, as the current US administration has already opted to do, more than 1 billion people will be in an environment with an average above 102.2°F within three generations.

The Universal Thermal Climate Index -- the standard metric for measuring the effect of extreme heat on human health -- classifies "very strong heat stress" as occurring between 38℃ and 46℃ (100.4℉ and 113℉). Past the lower limit of 104℉, our central nervous systems start to physically break down. Even if we hold the line at a global temperature rise of 1.5℃, the United Nations International Organization for Migration (IOM) projects 30 to 60 million people will still be living in very strong heat stress by the end of the 21st century. If it's 2℃, that number passes 100 million. If we all do nothing, as the current U.S. administration has already opted to do, more than 1 billion people will be in an environment with an average UTCI above 102.2 degrees Fahrenheit within three generations.


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Extreme heat makes people volatile and angry. The link between spikes in temperature and spikes in regional violence is so well-documented that senior members of the military have already acknowledged climate change as the greatest humanitarian threat in the world, citing it as a catalyst for violent uprisings like the Arab Spring and the spread of terrorist groups like Boko Haram. The War in Darfur, which saw the Sudanese government engage in an ethnic-cleansing campaign of its own civilians, is widely singled out as the first of a new generation of conflicts sparked by climate change. Left vulnerable to persecution and drought, huge swaths of the population fled the country, creating a migration wave that spilled over into Chad and displaced tens of thousands more there.

In Syria, drought in the northern rural areas drove 1.5 million people into the cities during the mid-2000s, straining resources and putting pressure on a powder-keg government. Desperate overcrowding like this begets famine, disease, price-gouging, violent crime. It also compounds an existing phenomenon called the Urban Heat Island Effect, wherein a concentrated area of people is already hotter than the rural space around it.

Not enough people are working on ways to absorb incoming refugees and restore areas that are being rendered uninhabitable.

Not every region of the world will be compromised by heat stress this century. But climate change is a threat multiplier, meaning the heat-migration nexus is just one manifestation that's causing mass displacement. Beyond global temperature rise and acute heat waves and civil war, migration is being accelerated by drought and diminished access to clean water, coastal erosion, wildfires, melting icecaps, forest dieback, disappearing food and natural resources, and violent, almost Biblical weather, often at the wrong time of year. To survive, people have to leave.

The lack of education and awareness about climate migration is catastrophic. It means not enough people are working on ways to absorb incoming refugees and restore areas that are being rendered uninhabitable, but it also means people vulnerable to climate-driven disasters who have the means to move simply aren't because they don't realize they need to.

In the United States, the upper border of the region the IOM has scheduled for some very strong heat stress by 2071 more or less lines up with the Mason-Dixon. Which means, critically, that a lot of the people in this country who don't believe in climate change are among the first who will need to move. Climate change-denial has mutated into a trenchant enough mindset that even after people can no longer deny the visible effects, they can still deny the cause. Some residents of sinking Virginia island Tangier intend to stay firmly put on their island's remaining 1.3 square miles as it shrinks an additional 15 feet each year, kind of like the This Is Fine meme but without any humor to it.

Climate change, of course, does not care whether or not you believe in it.

Even underwater, Tangier is still America, and it's people are free to ignore any volume of evidence if they're determined enough. But that doesn't absolve climate activists of the fact that we're not doing anywhere near as good a job creating a dialogue around climate change and migration as we should be. Even among those who accept it, one of the most pernicious misunderstandings of global warming is that its consequences take place in the future and not when they actually do, which would be now.

People see themselves reflected most in human stories -- the kinds of stories being generated right now by climate migration, and yet most still haven't even heard the term. We instead tend to express climate change through numbers. But numbers mostly register as an abstract, regardless of how dire. By 2100, nearly three out of four people will face heatwaves strong enough to kill them, and yet even bombshells like that don't seem to affect people quite like realizing just how many ways climate change can kill them right here, right now.

Tangier's mayor attributes the steady descent of his entire island into the sea to coastal erosion, either denying or without understanding that even that's down to climate change, too. He says Trump can save them by building a wall to keep the ocean out. Climate change, of course, does not care whether or not you believe in it; even if they escape natural disasters and loss of livelihood, those people will still be forced to abandon their island by 2065. By then, sea level will have risen another two feet. People in Florida are already selling their homes. In Alaska, entire communities are attempting to relocate as a unit. You can see what your own backyard might look like in a few years, and whether you yourself might have to move.

It's not too late to mitigate what comes next, but it is almost too late. We need more research on climate migration, more international partnerships and interdisciplinary aid projects. We need more maps. We need more civil and agricultural engineers who are focused on specifically this, but the first thing we need is more education, because for most people this subject is still new, and the best way for people to find the most actionable response to a crisis is if they understand what it actually is.