Bracing for the coming climate refugee crisis

The millions of people displaced by wars and conflict in the 20th century and in the early part of this century are likely to be eclipsed by a vast waves of forced migration in the decades ahead, as rising temperatures, droughts, desertification and coastal inundation render more and more places virtually uninhabitable. Yet little real thought has gone into how societies around the world will cope with this coming human tsunami, as I explored in the Business Post in January.

ALTHOUGH World War II ended in 1945, tens of millions of refugees displaced by the conflict continued to seek safety and shelter for years after the fighting stopped. This humanitarian disaster, which affected well over 50 million people in Europe alone, spurred the creation of the UN Refugee Convention in 1951.

The convention established the fundamental rights of refugees for the first time, and was a key element in resolving the crisis. The convention was designed to protect those fleeing violence or persecution, and today it covers the more than 60,000 Ukrainian refugees now in Ireland to escape the Russian invasion.

As the Ukrainian, Syrian and other conflicts illustrate, the spectre of war remains an ever-present threat. However, this issue is already being rapidly eclipsed by the ever-increasing flow of climate refugees.

According to the Norwegian Refugee Council, at least 55 million people were forced from their homes in 2020 – with extreme weather events accounting for three times more displacement than violent conflicts.

Roderic O’Gorman, the Minister for Integration, provoked controversy recently when he backed the extension of the asylum process here to include those fleeing their homes as a result of climate and ecological breakdown. Ivana Bacik, the Labour leader, supported O’Gorman’s call and said that, internationally, the grounds for granting asylum need to be extended to include climate-related forced migration.

Cross-border migration is inevitably a politically sensitive issue, one that extremists are keen to exploit. Far-right activists last week orchestrated noisy protests outside an accommodation centre for refugees in Ballymun, and before that in East Wall.

The irony of Irish protesters demanding that non-nationals be thrown out belies the fact that at least one in six people born in Ireland now live abroad. The Department of Foreign Affairs estimates that over 1.4 million Irish citizens are resident outside the state, excluding people in Northern Ireland. By the warped logic of the far-right, they too should be ejected from their new homes and forced to return to Ireland.

While those fleeing war and persecution enjoy clear legal protections, the same does not apply to the ever-increasing number of climate refugees, and “there is no consensus on how to legally define them”, according to the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). It notes that amending the 1951 convention would require adding a specific protocol aimed at defining the term ‘climate refugee’.

In 2018, the UN Human Rights Council described climate refugees as “the world’s forgotten victims”, as they are unable to access even basic human rights or legal protection against deportation. A more recent report issued by the White House added that current legal options for refugees “do not readily lend themselves to protect those individuals displaced by the impacts of climate change”.

Another option, according to the CFR, is to create an entirely new convention. We are, after all, in a radically new situation, facing a tsunami of refugees in the coming years and decades that will dwarf even the massive population dislocation caused by world war.

A recent scientific study projected that, by 2070, one in three humans would be living with temperatures as hot as the hottest part of the Sahara desert today. These are, the report stressed, “unliveable conditions”, not just for humans, but also for livestock and most crops.

For the last 6,000 years or so, humans have existed and thrived in a surprisingly narrow climatic window, mostly in areas with a mean average temperature in the range of 11°C to 15°C. Our food and agriculture systems have all been optimised for this niche.

A third of the global population now face unbearable mean average temperatures of around 29°C in the coming decades, assuming global warming is allowed to continue to escalate. This means the forced migration of perhaps one billion people by 2050, rising towards three billion within a decade or two, as almost one fifth of the world’s habitable land surface becomes simply too hot for human habitation. In stark contrast, today only around 1 per cent of land is unbearably hot.

“Global warming will affect ecosystems as well as human health, livelihoods, food security, water supply and economic growth”, the researchers noted in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In these circumstances, much of Africa, Australasia and South and Central America will be largely abandoned as a result of extreme climatic conditions leading to intense droughts, heat waves, floods and famines and the rapid spread of communicable diseases.

Globally, 260 million people are living in coastal areas at risk from rising sea levels, the bulk of whom are in poorer countries. However, a rise in sea levels of two metres or more would have devastating impacts much closer to home, with densely populated parts of Dublin, Cork, Galway and many other coastal settlements facing abandonment.

This point was driven home by junior minister Patrick O’Donovan last November. “There will be people in this country that will become migrants because of changes to the coast, changes to inland areas, that just simply cannot be protected,” he said.

Experts note that while climate-fuelled weather disasters are ratcheting up, there is also a domino effect at play. For instance, rising temperatures can reduce access to safe water, which leads to the spread of disease and drought, which trigger crop failures and famine, leading to political instability and conflict.

This was seen most vividly with the drought that devastated Syria from 2006 to 2010. It led to 85 per cent of the country’s livestock dying, and caused an exodus from rural areas into already crowded cities. This was one of the key triggers in the ongoing Syrian civil war, a conflict that has created more than six million refugees and in turn arguably aided the rise of far-right Trumpism in the US and the Brexit movement in Britain.

As we approach the second quarter of the 21st century, the scene is set for a confluence of humanitarian, political and refugee crises on a scale never before witnessed. The United Nations projects that rising temperatures will lead to a catastrophic 30 per cent drop in global food production by 2050 while the population continues to climb.

Assuming the world continues to ignore the climate crisis underpinning this unfolding tragedy, we face a near-future of famine on an intercontinental scale, with billions forced to become refugees. This will hasten the likely collapse of the international political and economic order, and the resurgence of ultra-nationalism and fascism, as states vainly try to seal their borders against non-nationals.

However, if the global climate and biodiversity crises have any lesson for our species, it is that we are united by our shared humanity. In the final analysis, we either come together, or we will assuredly go down separately.

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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