January 31, 2023

Global warming is not driving this refugee crisis, but it may drive the next

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In this June 5, 2014 photo, men walk through a devastated part of Homs, Syria. Syrian government forces retook the control of Homs in May 2014, after a three year battle with rebels. (AP Photo/Dusan Vranic)

In this June 5, 2014 photo, men walk through a devastated part of Homs, Syria. Syrian government forces retook the control of Homs in May 2014, after a three year battle with rebels. (AP Photo/Dusan Vranic)

India-groundwater MacedoniaMigrants SyriaTimelineKelleyetalBy Andrew Freedman From Mashable

There are many causes of the European refugee crisis, but one thing is certain despite headlines to the contrary: Climate change is not the dominant factor. The refugees fleeing war torn nations like Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, as well as those seeking economic opportunities lacking in Africa, are not risking their lives along treacherous sea and land routes because of global warming-related factors.

News reports calling the refugees the first “climate refugees” are getting too far ahead of the curve.

But the ongoing humanitarian disaster provides a teaching opportunity for a time not too long from now when the first true climate refugees trigger a similar situation. With sea level rise slowly swallowing Pacific island nations and warming sea and air temperatures exacerbating droughts and floods around the world, we’re closer than we’ve ever been to a climate change-triggered migration event.

President Obama warned of this last week, in a foreboding speech in Anchorage, Alaska, on Sept. 2, when he spoke about the consequences of business as usual in the face of global warming pollution:

“… There’s not going to be a nation on this Earth that’s not impacted negatively,” he said. “People will suffer. Economies will suffer. Entire nations will find themselves under severe, severe problems. More drought; more floods; rising sea levels; greater migration; more refugees; more scarcity; more conflict.”

Global warming connects to Syria conflict but …
There is evidence showing that global warming contributed to a severe drought that preceded the Syrian civil war, but climate links to some of the other conflicts flaring up and contributing to the tide of refugees, such as the war in Yemen, are not yet established.

A study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last year found that global warming doubled to tripled the risk of a crippling drought in the Fertile Crescent as severe as the one that occurred shortly before the fighting broke out.

Syria Timeline
Previous studies had shown that the drought, along with other factors such as an influx of refugees from the conflict in Iraq next door, helped prime Syria for conflict by 2011, when the uprising began, before transitioning into an all-out civil war.

A key factor that helped lead to the outbreak of hostilities was the Syrian government’s poor response to the drought, which led to an influx of poor, rural farmers flooding Syria’s cities looking for jobs, the study found.

Today, once-cosmopolitan Syria has been reduced to rubble, with the group known as ISIS taking over large swaths of territory.

At least 200,000 people are estimated to have died in this conflict so far, and more than 4 million Syrians are now refugees.

The study said the uprising was the result of a complex chain of events, of which global warming was only a part.

The refugee crisis should be viewed in a similar manner: a complex chain of events, all leading to a horrible situation that leaders are proving ill-prepared to cope with.

Rather than grabbing headlines by claiming that global warming is producing the current situation, one would be wise to consider this a warning of what’s next, in ten years or perhaps twenty, when countries other than Syria are pushed beyond a breaking point and rupture.

Secretary of State John Kerry, who is often accused of elevating global warming above other threats, such as terrorism, clearly stated at the same Anchorage conference that climate refugees are a future risk if global warming is not curtailed.

“And we as leaders of countries will begin to witness what we call climate refugees moving — you think migration is a challenge to Europe today because of extremism, wait until you see what happens when there’s an absence of water, an absence of food, or one tribe fighting against another for mere survival,” he said to an audience that included the foreign ministers of several European nations dealing with the refugee crisis, such as Denmark and Norway.

The refugee crisis is complex, and should be portrayed that way
According to the U.N. Refugee Agency, about 53% of the refugees fleeing to Europe are coming from Syria. They have a climate connection, but a complicated one. The others, such as the 14% of the refugee population that is coming from Afghanistan, the 7% coming from Eritrea and the 3% of people who trace their routes back to Nigeria don’t, at least based on the most recent scientific literature.

India groundwater

“With regards to analysis concerning the current refugee crisis in Europe, analysts run the dual risk of both oversimplifying and underestimating the situation analysts run the dual risk of both oversimplifying and underestimating the situation,” wrote Caitlin Werrell and Francisco Femia, co-founders and directors of the Center for Climate and Security in Washington, in an email to Mashable.

“It is really important to treat this as the very complex issue it is. Conflict is complex, and there’s no evidence, at this point, to suggest that climate change was the main driver of the Syrian conflict (and certainly not a proximate cause),” they wrote. “Labeling the millions of people seeking refuge “climate refugees” oversimplifies the multitude of factors contributing to their motivations for leaving a conflict situation.”

They, along with other experts contacted for this article, said it’s crucial that scholars and policy makers better understand how climate change may contribute to instability, including in the case of Syria, with its 2 million internally displaced farmers and herders prior to the outbreak of hostilities.

“We need to have policy measures put in place so that governments are better able to withstand the increased stresses to water and food, and to do so in a humanitarian way,” they said. “We have a very high degree of certainty that more people will face greater stresses on their water and food, and governments have a responsibility to prepare for this future.

Colin Kelley, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California at Santa Barbara who was the lead author on the 2014 Syria climate change and conflict paper, told Mashable that there isn’t an agreed upon definition for “climate refugee” as of yet.

“I think we are definitely seeing evidence today of climate change exacerbating existing vulnerabilities and instabilities and therefore contributing to the dramatic rise in refugees globally,” he wrote in an email. “This does not imply that climate change is the only important factor.”

Kelley has begun studying declining water resources in Yemen and the possible links to the internal and external conflicts there. Studies from NASA show dramatic declines in the Earth’s water savings bank in parts of the world that already are on the brink of instability.

“The term ‘climate refugee’ could imply that climate change is the primary factor for seeking refuge. It would be difficult to make that case for Syria,” Kelley wrote. “In other places, such as island nations where sea level rise is already happening, climate change is clearly the key reason for seeking refuge.”

The trend to affect all other trends
The ongoing refugee crisis is a teachable moment for the climate change and conflict community, which is growing beyond just a few think tanks to encompass the entire military-industrial complex of the U.S. and other nations.

The U.S. military views climate change as a threat multiplier that will affect everything from an increased need for natural disaster assistance missions, such as the Pentagon’s participation in Pakistan flood relief efforts in 2010, to civil wars and regional conflicts in states that already have weak governments and other underlying risk factors.

Scholars tend to back this view up, as well, and it’s clear that the message is seeping through to the highest levels of government. As Obama put it recently: “Climate change is a trend that affects all trends — economic trends, security trends. Everything will be impacted. Everything will be impacted.”

Neil Bhatiya, a policy associate at the Century Foundation in New York, told Mashable in an email that global warming is best considered as “a macro trend that is filtered through local circumstances.” Bhatiya says more attention needs to be paid to how to handle displacement caused by climate change, including refugee status. As he noted, refugee status is a specific legal distinction that has not previously been assigned to people fleeing a natural disaster.

But then again, climate change is more of a manmade disaster.

“… Whether or not you acknowledge climate change as a factor in the Syrian context, I think it is difficult to argue this will not become a more pronounced issue — that, because of climate change, you will see more forcibly displaced in the future,” he said.

A possible forum for discussion around this topic will be the crucial round of U.N. climate talks in Paris this December. A large bloc of developing countries have previously raised the possibility of forming an organization within the U.N. system that would coordinate climate change displacement issues, and this could become part of a new treaty, depending how the negotiations go.

So as you scan the headlines of the refugee stories, and reflect on the enormity of the challenges and interconnectedness between weak states and conflict zones, remember: this is but a prelude to future crises.

And the next refugee crisis might just actually be because of global warming.

People gather at a refugee camp in the southern Macedonian town of Gevgelija, Tuesday, September 8, 2015. IMAGE: BORCE POPOVSKI/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Timeline of events in Syria leading up to the civil war. IMAGE: KELLEY ET AL. 2014, PNAS
NASA satellite shows significant groundwater depletion in parts of India and Pakistan. IMAGE: NASA JPL Homs In this June 5, 2014 photo, men walk through a devastated part of Homs, Syria. Syrian government forces retook the control of Homs in May 2014, after a three year battle with rebels.

For more on this story go to: http://mashable.com/2015/09/08/global-warming-refugee-crisis/?utm_campaign=Feed%3A+Mashable+%28Mashable%29&utm_cid=Mash-Prod-RSS-Feedburner-All-Partial&utm_medium=feed&utm_source=feedburner&utm_content=Google+Feedfetcher#zzXAu2NSOOkE

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