Climate Change: The Overlooked Factor in the Refugee Crisis

By Madeleine Andrew-Gee 
Social Connectedness Fellow 2017

In September of 2015, the world awoke to the image of young Syrian refugee Aylan Kurdi, lifeless on a beach in Greece, a photo which was published on every major newspaper around the world. The general public was alerted, in a way they hadn’t been before, to the global refugee crisis and its devastating human toll. Several relief agencies reported the doubling and even tripling of their donations, heads of states made statements, and calls to action arose in every continent. In addition, there were pledges from countries to take in more refugees and the crisis became a central point in the Canadian election.

In the aftermath of that image, media coverage of the refugee crisis focused on war and persecution. However, the devastating impacts of environmental factors and natural disasters on the refugee crisis were largely ignored. Climate change has been recognized as, “the most systemic threat to humankind” by U.N secretary general, António Guterres. So why aren’t policy makers connecting the dots?

Three and a half years after the death of Aylan Kurdi, the figures are grim. Climate change, armed conflicts, and a rising number of economic migrants fleeing poverty and persecution have left an estimated 65.6 million displaced people. This number is growing— with over 28,000 additional people being forced from their homes every day. The majority of them are fleeing Syria, Afghanistan, and South Sudan. Despite extensive media coverage of how the refugee crisis affects Europe, the vast majority of displaced people and refugees are hosted in Africa and the Middle East, with Turkey, Pakistan and Lebanon taking in over a million refugees each.

A refugee is defined as, “a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster”. While climate change increases the frequency and severity of natural disasters, it is often talked about as if its impacts were still years away. The reality is that its impacts on displacement are happening now. According to Secretary Guterres, 41 million people in South Asia have been effected by floods and 900,000 individuals in Africa have been displaced by severe droughts. Food and water have become more scarce, as lands are either drained or flooded by rising sea levels and severe weather events.  Food security is threatened, which leads to tensions that can erupt into conflict. A study published in Science states that the effects of climate change could triple the amount of asylum seekers by 2100. 

Climate change affects displacement directly and indirectly. A study in 2015 highlighted the fact that rising temperatures and human-caused environmental degradation contributed to a severe drought in Syria. This drought displaced many farmers, and has been considered a contributing factor to the start of the civil war that has gripped the country for seven years.

No policy or suggested fix to the refugee crisis will work unless environmental degradation is addressed. In a National Geographic article, University of California Berkley researcher Solomon Hsiang explains, “Compared to managing and resettling an unending flow of refugees, and coping with the resulting political chaos, it seems likely that reducing greenhouse gas emissions today is a bargain.”

Moving forward, states need to keep their word when it comes to environmental action. The Paris agreement must be carried forward by all its signatories; and civil society must commit to helping party states accomplish the goals set out in the landmark agreement.

Finding solutions to climate change is pressing, yet techno-fixes, such as Geoengineering (large-scale interventions in the climate) are often presented as the only solutions. In ‘The Big Bad Fix’ the civil society organization ETC Group, says “…each of the proposed geoengineering technologies threatens people and ecosystems. Holistic assessments of the technologies also show that if deployed they are highly likely to worsen rather than mitigate the impacts of global warming”. The proponents of these techno-fixes often do not consult developing countries or Indigenous peoples, who are disproportionally impacted by climate change. 

Instead, why not look at the existing networks and lifestyles that could deliver sustainability and real, long-term solutions? As ETC Group outlines, we need radical reductions in emissions, consumption, and agro-industrial agriculture. Supporting the climate resilience of sustainable small-scale farmers and peasant agriculture is pressing.

The image of Aylan Kurdi in September 2015 reminded the public that the refugee crisis is one with a human toll. The longer its environmental causes are left unaddressed, the harder it will be to set us on a course to reunite families, rebuild social networks, and ensure that 65.6 million displaced peoples have somewhere to go back “home” to.