Refugees and the real-life implications of climate change

Ismail Zitouny/Reuters
Migrants come ashore in Tripoli, Libya, after being rescued by the Libyan coast guard on July 26, 2019.

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They’re snapshots of the West’s climate debate: one, a little-noticed Mediterranean shipwreck that claimed the lives of economically desperate refugees fleeing African countries devastated by extreme weather events. Two, a much-noticed record heat wave across Europe and the United States that coincided with new reports charting the effects of global warming.

The underlying message: The science around global warming is becoming more widely accepted in developed countries. But the politics remain complex.

Why We Wrote This

Climate change isn’t just about science. The migration spurred by extreme weather events is raising deep moral ​questions around access and equity for developed countries.

The challenge is the international political environment – with multinational alliances and organizations more fragile, nationalism and populism more assertive. The priority for key Western governments has become keeping large numbers of migrants from reaching their borders, even as there is no doubt that climate extremes figure prominently in driving them northward.

Polling shows climate change becoming an ever more important concern in the West. The data points are ever more arresting; studies in Nature and Nature Geoscience, for example, focused on the sustained temperature increases since the Industrial Revolution, concluding there had been no similar trend over the past two millennia.

Still, the main focus of the debate in Europe and the U.S. has remained on reducing their carbon emissions, not on the countries so many migrants are fleeing.

There’s nothing like a scalding surge of Saharan summer across Europe and the United States to focus minds on the real-life implications of climate change – especially since the record heat wave has coincided with the release of a number of new reports charting the extent and effects of global warming.

But another event – just days after the record European and U.S. heat waves – received scant media attention. It was a fatal shipwreck in the Mediterranean, off the coast of Libya. And it claimed the lives of dozens of economically desperate refugees fleeing African countries that, amid steadily rising annual temperatures, have been suffering devastating droughts and sudden torrents of rain – the kind of “extreme events” climate scientists predict will become ever more frequent.

The omission offered an important snapshot of the current state of the climate debate in the developed nations of the West. The message: While the science around global warming is becoming more widely accepted, the politics remain complex and contested.

Why We Wrote This

Climate change isn’t just about science. The migration spurred by extreme weather events is raising deep moral ​questions around access and equity for developed countries.

At the core of the political conundrum lie two interlocking issues: the dire climatic conditions facing some of the poorest agricultural areas in the less-developed world, whether in sub-Saharan Africa or Central America; and the growing numbers of their people ready to risk everything in the hope of finding sanctuary in Europe or the U.S.

For international charities and advocacy groups working in Africa or Central America, the priority is clear. They argue the need for a well-funded, targeted drive to help the millions in rural communities threatened by destitution, ill health, or outright famine. Some want the United Nations to endorse the idea of adding a new category of internationally accepted refugee: “climate refugees.” Their view is that a concerted effort to deal with the problem represents a critical step in any long-term answer to the wider issue of migration.

Science does play some part for those making the counterargument. Their view is that it’s yet to be shown that climate change is the sole driver of the surge of refugees seeking safe haven in Europe or the U.S. And they’re right to cite other factors as well: growing populations, civil strife or gang violence, bad governance or a history of resource mismanagement.

But the picture on the ground – nowhere more powerful than in a series of Christian Science Monitor special reports on famine in Africa in 2017, and the “Out of Africa” reporting of New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman a year earlier – leaves no doubt that climate extremes have played a major part in the economic hardships driving growing numbers northward. Indeed, a new U.N. report underscores that point, noting that climate change will likely cause food shortages and spur cross-border migration.

The key challenge facing those seeking coordinated world action is not the science. It’s the current international political environment – with multinational alliances and organizations more fragile, and a mix of nationalism and populism in the ascendancy. The priority for key Western governments has become the shorter-term aim of keeping large numbers of migrants from reaching their borders.

The European Union, through programs like its Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, has made an effort to use economic support and training schemes to stem the flow of refugees from their home countries. But by far the main EU focus, largely through the increasingly unstable government in Libya, has been to try to keep those fleeing Africa from reaching European shores in the first place.

The U.S. has devoted development and assistance funding to the “Dry Corridor” states of Central America – Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. But President Donald Trump has made stemming migration to the U.S. a centerpiece of his administration’s political message, and of his bid for a second term in office.

Last week, in an initiative resembling the EU’s arrangement with the Libyans, he announced an agreement with Guatemala that, assuming it wins congressional approval there, would require would-be migrants from Central America to register asylum claims in Guatemala rather than on the U.S. border.

Will priorities shift? Recent polling does show that, especially among younger people, climate change is becoming an ever more important concern in the West, with data points getting ever more arresting.

Just a couple of days after the recent heat wave, Britain’s national weather service reported that every one of the country’s 10 hottest years since the late 1880s has occurred since 2002. And a series of studies published in Nature and Nature Geoscience focused on the sustained, worldwide pattern of temperature increases since the Industrial Revolution, concluding there had been no similar trend over the past two millennia.

Still, at least so far, the main focus of the debate in Europe and the U.S. has remained on reducing their own carbon emissions, not on the countries beyond their borders that so many migrants are fleeing.

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