We need to talk about climate refugees

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Drought, worsened by climate change, put Syria on a path that led to civil war and contributed to one of the worst refugee crises in European history. [Freedom House]

Climate change is not just about polar bears, it is about all life on our planet, and it poses a threat to humanity as great – or greater – than war or terrorism. Steve Trent warns that climate change is increasingly viewed as a threat to global peace.

Steve Trent is executive director of the Environmental Justice Foundation.

We are already seeing how climate change is causing extreme poverty, food insecurity and how climate change is forcing people to flee their homes. The Environmental Justice Foundation’s latest report, Beyond Borders, outlines the link between a changing climate, migration and conflict and how climate change fed into the Syrian conflict as a ‘threat multiplier’.

Rising temperatures and changing rainfall patterns will intensify competition for resources, food and water. Rising sea levels and extreme weather events will displace ever greater numbers of people.

Since 2008, weather-related hazards – which are magnifying and multiplying as a result of climate change – displaced more than 21 million people each year, equivalent to 59,600 people every day or 41 people every minute. Millions more were forced to leave their homes due to prolonged droughts and their devastating impacts.

In Bangladesh, tens of millions of people living in coastal areas will be forced to move as their land is inundated by rising sea levels; in Indonesia, around 300 million people will suffer the same fate, forced from their land and livelihoods. Some island nations such as Tuvalu, the Maldives and Vanuatu are set to disappear altogether. Entire nations forced to flee.

That people are forced to leave their homes because of climate change is not at some distant time in an unimaginable future, it is happening right now.

And mass displacement caused by climate change can also ignite conflict. In Syria, over one million people were on the move from drought-stricken regions before a single gunshot was fired.

The prolonged drought in Syria, coupled with devastating climate events – wildfires, droughts and storms in major grain-producing areas that reduced 2010/11’s harvests and doubled the global price of wheat in six months left people hungry, poor and on the move. Al-Assad’s failure to respond to the needs of Syria’s desperate people was the spark to the outbreak of the bloody conflict.

Climate change was not the sole cause of conflict in Syria but it is increasingly viewed as a ‘threat multiplier’, driving the likelihood of violent conflict arising from pre-existing and complex interactions between political, economic, religious, ethnic or other cultural forces.

The challenge facing us is complex, and in a rapidly changing world, climate change and its potential to trigger both violent conflict and mass migration need to be considered as urgent priorities for policymakers and business leaders.

Security analysts and military experts are already warning of increased conflicts if we continue on our current trajectory. This is not to militarise climate change, but to illustrate the gravity of the existential threat facing us all.

EJF is calling for the development of a new legally-binding agreement to protect climate refugees. We need this instrument to give definition and status to climate refugees; to define rights and obligations, and to coordinate and combine our actions so that they are effective.

We cannot hope to deal with the wave of suffering and disruption as single nations; it will not work. We will all be better served, better prepared and better protected if we act together.

In his state of the union 2015, Commission President Juncker said: “Climate change is even one of the root causes of a new migration phenomenon. Climate refugees will become a new challenge if we do not act swiftly.”

But two years later, where is this swift action?

The European Union cannot fail to protect those most in need, those who have been displaced as a result of the greenhouse gas emissions produced by Europe over the past decades.

EU leaders – regardless of their political persuasion – must step up to their responsibility to protect not only those who happen to be born with an EU passport but all those who will be forced to leave their homes and communities because of climate change. This is an issue of climate justice and of our shared obligations within a global community.

For climate refugees, tomorrow will be too late.