Should Europe Be Concerned About Climate Refugees?

Syrian Refugees in the desert
Syrian refugees carry their belongings as they wait to enter the Jordanian side of the Hadalat border crossing, a military zone east of the capital Amman, after arriving from Syria, May 4. Khalil Mazraawi/AFP/Getty ImagesMay 4, 2016.

Europe's migration crisis is a failure of policy and politics. Granted, the scale of human displacement is without precedent in the EU—over 1 million refugees and migrants arrived in 2015—but the tragic scenes in the Mediterranean, internal squabbles over quotas and border controls and feverish fence building betray a lack of preparedness for what was a foreseeable outcome.

Ongoing conflict in the Middle East and the unsustainable accumulation of refugees in neighboring countries should have been warning enough for Europe's governments. Things are unlikely to improve any time soon. Europe is a haven of stability in a neighborhood of fragility. From North Africa to the Middle East and across the Sahel into the Horn of Africa, a great many of Europe's neighbors are at risk of, or experiencing, conflict.

Climate change will make a bad situation worse. As a recent report for the G7 argued, it will undermine livelihoods, increase local resource competition, aggravate pre-existing tensions and destabilize markets, ultimately increasing the risk of social upheaval. In extreme cases, climate change may leave people with little option but to move. One recent analysis found temperatures in the Middle East and North Africa could be so extreme by the end of the century that some areas may become uninhabitable.

The extent to which climate change will exacerbate conflict and displacement in Europe's near abroad will depend in large part on how effectively countries and populations adapt. Where governments and societies are able to manage the disruptions of a changing climate, the risk of turmoil will be less. Unfortunately, resilience to climate change is predicated on wealth, strong institutions and cohesive societies—all things that fragile states lack.

Indeed, there is some evidence that climate change may already be playing a background role in Europe's migration crisis. A recent paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences argued that a prolonged drought linked to climate change devastated rural areas in Syria, driving people to overcrowded cities and fuelling discontent in the urban centres where protests first erupted in 2011. The year before, a severe heatwave in Russia, also linked to climate change, laid waste to the wheat harvest, triggering the imposition of export controls and a spike in international wheat prices that drove up the cost of bread in the largest wheat importing region in the world—North Africa. When people first took to the streets of Cairo in 2011 to protest the corrupt regime of Hosni Mubarak, they were waving loaves of bread.

Of course, climate change was not responsible for the Arab Spring and the wars, terrorism and displacement that followed in its wake. The causes were multiple and inter-related. But perhaps climate change was a malign background presence, nudging things in the wrong direction and weighting the dice in favour of disruptive, unpredictable chains of events. For this reason, the security community has labelled climate change a "threat multiplier."

As such, climate change's influence on displacement will be difficult to disentangle from the web of other social, economic and environmental factors that shape migration patterns. It will act at the margin, so most climate-related migration is unlikely to occur en masse. As is the case now, displaced people will probably stay within their own country rather than cross international borders. Many could become trapped, without alternative employment to move for or the resources to migrate.

All this has two important implications. First, many of those who move will not be fleeing conflict or persecution, so will not be defined as refugees or asylum seekers nor treated as such under international law. However, this does not mean they will not come. Second, it is impossible to forecast population movement with any confidence, with or without the added complexity of climate change. But this is not a reason for inaction.

The current crisis should be a wake-up call. So far, global average temperatures have risen around 1 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels and the impacts of climate change on vulnerable countries are already apparent. Unfortunately, much greater impacts are inevitable. The aspirational 2 degrees target of December 2015's Paris conference would contain warming at twice current levels, but many question whether this will be achieved.

Existing government pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are more consistent with 3 degrees of warming; continuing on a business as usual pathway could see temperatures rise by 4 degrees or more by the end of the century. This would entail climate change at a rate and scale never experienced by humans, overwhelming efforts to adapt and resulting in major social and economic dislocations with profound implications for displacement.

Angela Merkel recently said the issue of asylum could be the next big European project. A common asylum policy is an important start, but the EU must take a more comprehensive approach, starting with a neighborhood resilience strategy to help fragile states reduce their vulnerability to climate change and conflict. Partnerships are needed with countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, currently hosting far more refugees than the EU with a fraction of the resources. Finally, learning the lessons of the current crisis, the EU must develop early-warning systems that will allow it to monitor, mitigate and prepare for future crises as climate change gathers pace.

Rob Bailey is the Research Director and Gemma Greeen is the Senior Manager of the Energy, Environment and Resources Department at Chatham House.