Can the recent refugee crisis be explained with climate change?

Written by Andrea Ballor

Europe is currently experiencing the biggest movement of people since the end of the Second World War. Desperate migrants leave behind homelands ravaged by war and poverty, many of them risking their lives as they attempt to cross the Mediterranean on crowded boats. This year alone, more than 3000 people died.

Oil and politics
Dysfunctional politics have a heavy responsibility for human suffering on so vast a scale. More than 25 million people have been displaced by armed conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. But there are also other factors that shed light on the causes of political instability in these parts of the world.

Many of the people seeking refuge in Europe are Syrians trying to escape a murderous civil war that began in 2011. As of September 2015, this war cost more than 250.000 lives. Sectarian strife and the explosive expansion of the Islamic State pushed Syria to the brink of collapse. The country’s increasingly tenuous energy supply did little to alleviate the situation.

Indeed, tensions in Syria were exacerbated by falling oil revenues. As Nafeez Ahmed wrote in The Guardian in 2013, Syria’s oil production peaked as early as 1996, with an estimated output of 610.000 barrels a day. By 2010, this figure had almost halved. When the government decided to cut fuel subsidies in 2008, social discontent became widespread. Furthermore, Iraqi efforts to combat ISIS were hampered by the global oil price plunge. Those governments relying on oil revenues to balance their books encountered significant financial problems.

Drought and food
Besides the regional geopolitics of energy, climate change cannot be discounted as an escalating factor. Between 2006 and 2010, a sustained drought drastically diminished the yields of Syrian farmers. At the Climate Summit of the Americas held in Toronto in July 2015, former US Vice President Al Gore claimed that the drought “destroyed 60 per cent of their farms and killed 80 per cent of their livestock,” sparking a vast internal migration. 1.5 million Syrian farmers lost their livelihood and subsequently flocked to the cities to make a living. The ensuing tension destabilized the country, even if it remains difficult to quantify the precise impact it had on the outbreak of the civil war.

Faced with desertification and increasingly reliant on food imports, Syria and its neighbours are particularly exposed to the fluctuations of global food prices. Experts warn that the world has entered a prolonged period of “agflation,” an inflation driven by rising prices for agricultural commodities that are linked to climate change and extreme weather. It’s not just catastrophic climate events – droughts, hurricanes, floods, blizzards, typhoons or earthquakes – gaining media attention that drive people away from their land. Also desertification is playing a main role in the determination of the causes of this huge flux of migrants.

Climate change, climate refugees?
Recent migrations from Syria cannot be explained by one single event. Rather, it’s a complex web of causes including war, political instability and…climate change. In this respect, Syria might be only the beginning. US Secretary of State John Kerry recently suggested that the current movement of people is little compared to future dislocations likely to be induced by climate change: “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.” By 2050, more than 150 million people, according to the Environmental Justice Foundation, will be forced to leave their homes because of the detrimental impact of global warming and extreme weather events.

One out of two displaced people are already fleeing environmental disasters. Yet the 1951 United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees does not grant refugee status to climate migrants. So far, legal attempts to be granted asylum and to be recognised as “climate refugees” have failed. But there is a growing consensus that climate change will de facto become one of the biggest drivers of migration in the 21st century.