The cases of Syria and Egypt suggest that the impacts of climate change can play a role in stoking the flames of insecurity and strife in inefficient, corrupt and authoritarian states. Because of this, refugees will continue to head West. The case for international climate aid and moral leadership has never been stronger.
As climate change impacts begin to strike with more severity, the issue of international migration and refugees is not going to go away. Climate change will increase instability in parts of the world where authoritarian governments, severe inequality and lack of public investment hold sway. Despite the reticence of previous US governments to accept the science, the Pentagon has long argued that climate change is a “threat multiplier“.
Climate Impacts such as prolonged drought, failed harvests, flooding or reduced access to water bring scarcity of food and income to local people. Subsistence agriculture becomes riskier and more difficult, while food prices rise in shops due to a reduction in supply. Conditions of scarcity, particularly in rural areas, force families and clans to adapt to ensure their basic survival. Inequalities between different communities become clearer as prices rise and the wealthy stockpile resources, or work with corrupt regime officials to secure their own resources. In areas where access to certain resources are essential for local livelihoods, groups may arm themselves to forcibly take control of water sources, farmland, mines or other resources which may secure their future.
In different cultural conditions, those of working age – often young men – may relocate to urban areas to find employment, often in exploitative conditions and with low pay. Where these men and their neighbours in city slums have lived under autocratic governments in conditions of extreme social and financial inequality for many years, the conditions for riot and revolution are ripe.
New research suggests that this is a part of Syria’s story. A prolonged 5 year drought drove up food prices and had over a million internal migrants heading for the cities to find employment, of which there was little. In rural areas, permits for wells were awarded on political lines, sewing seeds of discontent. As conditions continued to worse and discontent grew, the government responded with repression. The resulting protests, bouyed by the encouraging news from Egypt and supported by powerful families, mushroomed into the civil war we see today. (This explanation is diluted from here).
Another example came from the heart of the Arab spring itself. Many of the initial riots in Egypt were about the price of food, prices spiking between 2008-2010 as grain prices rose. The rise of grain prices was, at least in part, attributed to climate change linked impacts ruining grain harvests in other parts of the world.
The point is not to blame climate change for civil wars and the refugees that flee from them. Climate change does not get authoritarian leaders like Assad off the hook. To summarise Amartya Sen’s seminal work, famines do not occur in a functioning democracy (At least, they’re certainly a lot less likely). When governments are properly held to account by their citizens, or when they take governance and development seriously, pre-emptive investments are made to protect against famine, and emergency measures can be put in place to ensure that people do not starve.
But there are numerous countries or localised regions where climate change could force the issue. The number of countries with large, climate dependent industries (i.e.farming) and inefficient or corrupt governments is not insiginificant. When climate impacts push communities to a point at which their basic survival is at stake, glaring inequalities become clear and protest seems the only option, the threat of insecurity and civil war becomes very real. From that point onwards, refugees fleeing for safer environments is inevitable.
It is also worth remembering that the world’s poorest remain at most risk. In general, those who can pay for passage to the shores of Europe – and survive while they are there – were able to save earnings or sell assets. Those left behind are left stranded – often inaccessible to aid agencies due to ongoing violence, or at the mercy of whatever rebel group or army reaches them first. Many will be pressured into joining fighting forces to protect their families.
The heart-rending pictures of refugees struggling across Europe these last few weeks have served as a wake up call to both world leaders and the general public. The inability and reluctance of European leaders to deal with the situation has demonstrated how much fear politicians have of setting off long dormant political bombs. David Cameron and Phillip Hammond’s use of a discourse that seem better suited for pest controllers than by world leaders demonstrates their distaste for dealing with issue.
The best solutions prevent problems from arising in the first place. The case for international aid to support locally led adaptation to climate change (empowering communities to manage change), support institutional development and strengthen civil society has never been stronger, especially in “hard to engage” places. It has the potential to avert catastrophic violence and loss of life.
- Developed countries must fulfil their pledge made in 2009 to provide $100bn a year to help developing countries mitigate and adapt to the impacts of climate change. The Green Climate Fund should be central to this process.
- It is high time politicians demonstrated moral leadership on the issue of refugees. For too long in the UK, political parties have competed to “sound tough” on immigration, ignoring distinctions between asylum seekers, refugees and migrants. Combatting the myths long-peddled by newspapers such as the Daily Mail should be central to this process.
- The European Union must come to a common, human policy on asylum seekers and refugees fit for an unstable and insecure world.