Climate change is here, heating the world today, with direct and devastating consequences on human lives, the environment and more.
But it will also have ripple, domino-like consequences, just like other catastrophic events. The coronavirus pandemic has not only left a death toll in the millions, it has affected hundreds of millions through hospitalizations and changes to work, and caused damage to the health and health systems of individuals that remains fully understandable.
This year’s powerful earthquakes in Turkey and Syria not only killed more than 20,000 people, they displaced thousands more and exposed systemic problems of corruption that continue to affect Turkish people.
So as climate change makes extreme weather more severe, threatening lives with intense heat and catastrophic events, it also leads to looking ahead to the ways it could transform society – moving people and changing hierarchies and behaviours.
The problem with ‘climate refugee’ fears
Climate mass migration, and the political consequences it produces, can have profound consequences beyond rising temperatures themselves. But when I first started thinking about the issue, I extrapolated from what I knew about another type of forced migration: the refugee crises that result when people flee persecution or conflict. And it turns out that wasn’t the right way to think about the situation at all.
Refugees, sub international law, are people who were forced to flee their own countries due to persecution. This means that many political debates about refugees are essentially about countries’ obligations to vulnerable foreigners.
But climate change is most likely to displace people within their own countriesand drive them to seek protection from their own governments.
“When we talk about climate displacement, instead of thinking about future climate refugees across borders, we could already be thinking about people displaced by hurricanes or more people displaced by fires in the United States,” said Stephanie Schwartz, a political scientist at the London School of Economics. who studies forced migration. “It is difficult to change that psychologically, because it is not other people’s refugees or migrants. It’s “we could be refugees or migrants.”
In some extreme cases, such as Pacific islands threatened by rising sea levels, internal migration may not be possible. And climate disasters can also exacerbate other causes of cross-border migration, such as violence or weak labor markets.
But research suggests that much climate-related migration will reinforce existing trends, such as people moving from rural areas to cities. The promise of urban jobs is already a lure for many people, and may become even stronger if droughts or other disasters make agriculture harder to make a living from — or more dangerous work to do in extreme heat.
Thinking of climate migration primarily as a domestic issue changes how you think about political consequences, but also politics: Warnings about “climate refugees” coming to rich countries — or states or counties — can be useful to activists and politicians on all sides of the climate spectrum. a debate
“For left-wing groups, it serves to draw attention to the problem of climate change, and the urgency of dealing with this,” wrote Hein de Haas, professor of sociology at the University of Amsterdam, in an influential 2020. blog post. “For right-wing groups, it serves to raise the specter of future mass migration, and the need to strengthen border controls to prevent such an imagined deluge.”
But climate change will affect everyone – the emissions of heat-trapping gases, mainly caused by human burning of fossil fuels, are warming the whole Earth, not just a few countries. Migration within countries will require political responses that are much broader and more diverse than border control, and above all it will be a question of the accountability of governments to their own citizens.
Adding to that complexity, the issue may not be as simple as people moving from climate-affected areas to safer ones.
“People are just as likely to migrate to places of environmental vulnerability like of these places”, 2011 British Govt a report found “For example, compared to 2000, there may be between 114 and 192 million more people living in floodplains in urban areas in Africa and Asia by 2060.”
And in some cases, people can migrate from one form of risk to another: People may leave agricultural areas because of frequent droughts, for example, but later be exposed to extreme heat in cities where they went to look for work.
In some countries, rapid migration to cities will require new housing, so that people displaced by climate disasters do not end up mired in new ones, such as heat waves and floods hitting the most vulnerable housing. Other places may see tourism industries — the shortest of short-term migrations — affected by rising temperatures. Others may see conflict between newcomers and long-term residents, or need to adapt social services to the changing needs of new residents.
And, in many places, the worst affected may be those who have no choice but to remain in places suffering from extreme temperatures, natural disasters and other immediate consequences of a warming world.
“The people who are most likely to move are the ones who have the most resources,” Schwartz said. “So it may be that those most in need may be those who cannot move because of the climate crisis.”
One of the most significant challenges of responding to climate change is that it requires new political strategies and agreements at a time when many countries, including the United States, are increasingly polarized and deadlocked. As I wrote last week, politicians have an incentive to invest in emergency response, rather than more cost-effective preventative measures.
The looming issues of climate migration, similarly, could fall into existing political debates about the movement of people – and leave people vulnerable to greater harm by focusing on the standard political divides rather than the new consequences the world faces.
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