The predictions made by environmentalists are now coming true – but with a twist. The large numbers of refugees arriving in Europe are coming now not primarily because of climate change or environmental deterioration, but because of the political and military situation in the Middle East.
There is arguably a connection. The oil industry, a major driver of climate change, is also a major driver of Western foreign policy in the Middle East. It also seems that water stress and shortages, made worse by climate change, are a key factor feeding discontent and conflict in Syria.
But there is another connection too. This is the sense that the refugees currently coming to Europe, and those trying to get there, are simply a relatively small foretaste of the massive population movements which will be set off as climate change worsens, as there is every sign it will.
The Stern Report on ‘The Economics of Climate Change’ (2006) said: “The total number of people at risk of displacement or migration in developing countries is very large… nearly 200 million people today live in coastal flood zones that are at risk … there are potentially between 30 to 200 million people at risk of temperature rises of 2 to 3 degrees C – rising to 250 to 550 million people with a 3 degree warming; and between 0.7 to 4.4 billion people who will experience growing water shortages with a temperature rise of 2 degrees C” (Cambridge University Press edition: p129).
How should the international community respond? One interesting proposal – deserving of consideration at the Paris CoP – is for the question of migrants and refugees from the developing climate crisis to be included within the work governments are carrying out under the umbrella of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Without reopening the whole treaty, it is possible to add protocols. A large proportion of what has been meaningful so far under the Convention has come about through the Kyoto Protocol. Now perhaps there should be a protocol for climate refugees. This would be mainly an arrangement between governments as to which countries should take in migrants forced to leave their own countries as a result of climate change, either organised in advance or in response to emergencies. For example, Australia might agree to take in migrants from disappearing Pacific islands. Governments might also want to co-ordinate their own internal plans, for example perhaps with Florida residents, vulnerable to sea level rise, moving to Texas, the centre of the US oil industry.
Such a protocol can simply be seen as part of the sensible planning for adaptation that it is obvious the world community needs to carry out. Having failed to sufficiently limit carbon emissions, adaptation measures are increasingly coming to the fore. Many of these measures – strengthening flood defences, updating drainage systems, and so on – are not particularly dramatic. Dealing with large numbers of migrants, however, clearly will be – and in Europe we are already getting a sense of what that might be like.
Frank Biermann and Ingrid Boas wrote a useful article on this subject back in 2008. It can be found at: http://www.environmentmagazine.org/Archives/Back%20Issues/November-December%202008/Biermann-Boas-full.html
There have also been scholarly articles in various academic journals, and some discussion on websites. But governments don’t yet appear to have this issue on their agendas. They would prefer the problem to go away, and so they still delay taking action. The longer we wait, of course, the worse the problem will eventually become, because there will have been a lack of serious planning sufficiently far in advance.
The documentation for the Paris CoP has been argued over for months, and officials would not take kindly to the sudden appearance of a proposal for a new protocol. Probably the best that can be hoped for at this stage is endorsement of this proposal in the speeches in Paris by heads of government, and then some wording in the outcome documents to the effect that this is going to be worked on.
Then, after Paris, it can be added to the ‘to do’ lists for NGOs and members of parliaments to press for urgent action, either on this protocol proposal or on something similar with the same objectives. 2016 may be the time for this to be successful, because in 2015 we have already had a glimpse of the future.