is the title of a short New Scientist article (paywalled) with the message that climate change may already be a factor in social breakdown, unrest and war. Nevertheless during this century it will likely become a direct and real threat to population stability.
Le Page points out that there was a
- severe drought in Syria from 2006 to 2011, forcing more than a million people off farms and into cities in search of work. This added to the instability and unrest that led to war.
Some of those displaced from Syrian farms are now in Calais, seeking entry into the UK. Hunger, poverty and war is driving people to seek a better and more stable life elsewhere, rather than a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”, the words of the UN refugee convention.
The US Department of Defense says:
- “Climate change is an urgent and growing threat to our national security, contributing to increased natural disasters, refugee flows, and conflicts over basic resources such as food and water. These impacts are already occurring, and the scope, scale, and intensity… are projected to increase…”
Drought and extreme weather is one cause, sea level rise is another. Le Page tells us, for example, that a half-metre sea level rise would displace 1.5 million people in Alexandria in the Nile Delta, according to a 2004 study. What Le Page does not say is that the UN refugee system will simply break down under the pressure of mass people movements, if it has not already.
Googling turned up an interesting paper by Adrienne Millbank from the Social Policy Group of the Parliamentary Library. It was from September 2000, but update the figures (double or treble them) and it could have been written yesterday.
Millbank’s main message is that the UNHCR system was designed in 1951 for different circumstances, and that even then in the year 2000 it was essentially broken.
The ‘fear of persecution’ definition was too narrow. The politics of accepting continued refugee flows was getting more difficult. The majority of externally displaced refugees don’t get to present a case for asylum. They simply land in a camp. Within the camps women and children predominate. The Convention-based system favours those who move, mostly men, especially young men.
She summarises the problems thus:
- The problem with the Convention can also be summarised in simpler terms, of what it doesn’t include. It doesn’t confer any right of assistance on refugees unless and until they reach a signatory country. It confers no right of assistance on the ‘internally displaced’ at all. It imposes no obligation on governments not to persecute their citizens, or to guarantee their safe return. It imposes no mechanism for preventing mass outflows, for burden sharing between states, for ensuring speedy assistance for those most in need, or for maximising the effectiveness of international resources. And it takes no account of the capacity of receiving states.
Now the call is to solve the problems at source, by trying to stabilise the countries producing refugees, as David Cameron said recently. This seems beyond us. Moreover in the case of climate change we are already committed to change that will be significantly destabilising.
Philosophically I believe we are on this planet to look after each other, and our concerns should not be limited by the boundaries of nation states. As people movements become more unmanageable, however, harsher policies may well become the order of the day. Yet by not helping those in need our humanity is diminished.
Gwynne Dyer, in his book Climate Wars speculates on drought-ravaged Mexico becoming a failed state and the Mexico-US border being militarised to keep people out, of Northern Europe similarly drawing a line at The Alps. These are illustrative scenarios rather than predictions, but he knows that Russian defense planners are concerned about 100 million Chinese deciding to move into Siberia. Yet the most direct threats of sea level rise are to the coastal cities and river deltas of Asia.
In the final chapter of Climate Wars, Dyer argues that climate change is a historic challenge to humanity. The challenge for our species is to move to a “higher level of social and ecological understanding”.
- He uses the analogy of an examination.
“We just barely scraped through the mid-term exam in the last century; we acquired the ability to destroy our civilization directly, by war, and we managed not to use it.
“Now it’s the final exam, with the whole environment that our civilization depends on is at stake. It’s not just about knowledge and technical ability; it is also about self restraint and the ability to cooperate. Grown up values, if you like.”
Dyer believes that successfully preventing runaway climate change would be a coming of age, a “childhood’s end,” for humanity.
If we fail to adopt and meet suitable targets, global temperature rise will soar past 2°C. And climate migration will soar along with the temperature.