Tag Archives: climate change
Are any of the refugees attempting to cross the channel from France to the UK fleeing climate change? The short answer is probably not. But the New Scientist ran an Op Ed arguing that the “chaos” in Calais is “a taste of what a warmer world may bring”. The piece argues that the situation in Calais – resembling a “dystopian sci-fi movie” – could become common in the future as more people flee climate change impacts.
Let’s unpack the the claims of the article and see how they stack up against the available evidence.
Are climate change impacts causing people to move?
There is good evidence that climate change is already creating new patterns of migration and displacement. Climate change is leading to more frequent or powerful sudden disasters (such as Typhoons and flash floods) and these are forcing people to flee. In general when people face these sudden disasters, they tend not to move far. Usually they remain within their own country. Climate change is also worsening some slowly unfolding disasters like droughts and desertification. As these disasters erode peoples’ agricultural livelihoods they often move to find other work. Usually they move within their own countries and often to the nearest big city of town.
Are people in Calais at the moment fleeing climate change impacts?
This seems unlikely. The main countries of origin of people seeking asylum in France or the UK are essentially a list of the world’s war zones: Syria, Eritrea, Pakistan, DR Congo. Most of the people in Calais hoping to reach the UK are fleeing conflict, and the poverty that results from conflicts even if they have ended.
So why are people attempting to cross the Channel rather than seeking Asylum in France? Reports have suggested several motivations. Many of the people in Calais have family already in the UK. Living where they have family networks and support obviously makes more sense. Many people speak English, but not French. So they hope their chances of finding work and settling in will be better in the UK.
The primary ‘push’ factor for most of the people in Calais has been conflict and its aftermath. The ‘pull’ factor from France to the UK seems to be family connections and the prospect of work, due to speaking English. Climate change, or climate-related disasters are not among the primary forces creating this human movement.
But could climate change have played a role in creating some of the conflicts and poverty they are fleeing?
Possibly. But the evidence here is contested and controversial. There is some evidence linking climate change to drought in Syria and then to to the initial uprising against Assad. (Do read our analysis of this research). While drought might have been among the early causes of the conflict, it is primarily political factors that turned the uprising into an extended civil war. The primary force driving people out of Eritrea is human rights violations – often the requirement to perform indefinite military service in slave-like conditions. However, Eritrea has also been badly affected the recurring droughts across the Horn of Africa. It is possible that poverty brought about by drought could be amongst the motivations of some Eritrean refugees.
Both these example show that people are primarily moving for political and economic reasons. Often a mix of conflict and poverty. Climate change impacts might have had a role in creating the conflict of poverty. But the main forces creating and shaping patterns of violence and human rights violations remain political.
Image: Jey OH photographie from Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Could a hotter planet see a Calais-like situation in the future, in which people are fleeing climate change?
The main claim of the New Scientist article was not necessarily that the current refugees in Calais are fleeing climate change, but that a hotter planet might push more people to make the same journey. Increased climate change impacts will likely create more human movement. However, the movement is likely to follow similar patterns to the existing climate-driven migration. People are more likely to move a short distance, within their own countries, or possibly to neighbouring countries. It is also possible that climate change could make it harder for some people to move. As climate-impacts erode agricultural livelihoods people may reach a point where they don’t have the resources to migrate, and end up trapped where they are.
While a hotter planet might see more people moving, it is less likely that their route will be via Calais to the UK.
Even if this were the case, the dystopian and apocalyptic scenes described in the New Scientist are a result of how cross-border migration is managed. The “dystopian sci-fi” scenes described in the article result from the fact that the UK will not allow people to enter legally. The UK has one of world’s most tightly controlled borders in the world, this makes crossing it extremely difficult and dangerous. When people attempt to cross it, they are forced to resort to extraordinary measure such as attempting to cling onto the underside of trucks as they enter ferry terminals. If the UK allowed people to enter and seek asylum, the “dystopian sci-fi” scenes would not exist.
A hotter planet will likely mean more human movement – perhaps not between France and the UK – but certainly between other places. On a hotter planet, the key to avoiding Calais-like situations will be to allow people to move legally and more easily.
We took part in a panel discussion looking at the connections between climate change migration and health. This is a video of the entire discussion.
Chaired by: Prof. Paul Wilkinson Public & Environmental Health Research Unit, LSHTM
Speakers include: Dr. Ilan Kelman,UCL Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction; Prof Hugh Montgomery, director of the UCL Institute for Human Health and Performance, Hugh Grant-Peterkin, Centre for Sustainable Healthcare, Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb, Green Party
Climate Change A Risk Assessment aims to help governments assess how much effort should be spent reducing emissions, given the risks a hotter planet could create. The report looks at many of the dire risks a hotter planet will face: crop failure, flooding, sea level rise, water stress. The report then looks at what it calls ‘systemic risks’ that result from these physical impacts.
The report was prepared by Cambridge University’s Centre for Science and Policy and commissioned by the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
The report leans very heavily on the supposed risks created by migration linked to climate change. It presents migration linked to climate change as a disaster with the potential to create war, terrorism and chaos. While the report’s assessment of the physical impacts of climate change is highly credible, its assessment of climate linked migration is problematic.
Migration and climate change
The report sees migration entirely as a risk to receiving countries and areas. Migration linked to climate change is presented as something that could destabilise places that migrants move to. The report argues that the arrival of new climate migrants could lead to armed conflict. This – they claim – would result from new ethnic tensions and conflict over resources. Wars between states might erupt as migrants attempt to cross borders and receiving countries attempt to repel them. The report also claims that climate linked migration could become a new driver of terrorism. And that migrants could cause the spread of disease.
While predicting the future is difficult, and exploring future possibilities is important, it is also important to examine what existing evidence suggests is most likely:
- Migration is more likely to be internal, rather than between countries. In the face of degraded livelihoods or sudden disasters, people tend to move short distances, usually within their own countries.
- People may find themselves less able to move. As livelihoods are degraded and people become poorer, migrating becomes more difficult. As the impacts of climate change begin to take affect people may find themselves trapped.
- Migration linked to climate change may be seasonal, temporary and circular. In the face of climate impacts people may move temporarily during periods of drought and then return when conditions improve.
The idea of sudden, large scale, international migration caused by climate change is not well supported by existing evidence.
It is also important to examine the balance of evidence behind some of the claims about the impacts of migration in the report.
At the moment the connection between climate change and conflict is deeply controversial and highly contested within accademia. There is an emerging consensus that climate impacts may already be having a very limited impact on levels of violence. But, other political forces remain the most important factors in creating conflict. This applies to civil conflict and inter-group violence (two non-government armed forces fighting). There is little evidence that climate change will become a key factor in states deciding to use their armed forces against each other. Importantly, there is no evidence that migration and displacement linked to climate change is a driver of new violence.
There is little evidence that migrants and refugees themselves choose to take up arms and fight in their new locations. In fact, it is far more likely that they will be victims of violence while moving between locations. Similarly unaccompanied migrant minors are highly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. The real risk is to migrants and refugees themselves, rather than migrants creating security risks in the places they move to.
The report also ignores the key issue of migration as adaptation. Rather than seeing migrants as a security threat, this concept sees migration as a way for some of the most vulnerable people to adapt. In the face of climate change impacts, many people may wish to move. The solution is to seek to facilitate this. By allowing people to migrate, many people will chose to leave high-risk areas. By giving people this option they may migrate and seek work before conditions at home become intolerable and they are forced to move in desperation.
When migration does create problems it is often because people are forced to move illegally. Migrants and refugees are more likely to die or face injury if their journeys have been carried out in secrecy. They are also more likely to become victims of abuse and trafficking if they are undocumented. Migrants are far less likely to seek medial attention, or report crimes against them if they are undocumented.
The risks that migrants face can be mitigated by creating new legal migration routes. In the face of climate change impacts these new migration options become increasingly important. However this is missing from the report’s Risk Reduction chapter.
To evidence the claims the report frequently references the UK Government’s report Migration and Global Environmental Change, commonly called The Foresight Report. Foresight does make a strong case connecting climate change and migration. However it never makes the case for climate linked migration being catastrophic or massive. In fact, it argues that determining the number of “climate migrants” is actually impossible given the multiple forces creating human movement. Foresight also popularised the idea of climate immobility, the idea that people might become trapped and unable to move due to climate impacts. Further, it also made a strong case for using migration as a form of climate adaptation. It never argued that migration is a security problem, or a driver of conflict and terrorism. In fact it went to great lengths to make the case against these connections.
Interestingly, at no point in their discussion of migration and displacement does the report reference the Fifth Assessment report of the IPCC. The Human Security chapter of Working Group II represents a recent and very comprehensive review of much of the evidence linking migration and climate change. The assessment does point to important connections between climate change and migration. However, it also points out the difficulty of estimating numbers of potential migrants, and does not point to a powerful connection between climate, migration and armed violence.
Climate Change A Risk Assessment has presented a group of highly vulnerable people as a security threat, when in fact there is little evidence for this. In doing so, it has stoked existing fears and prejudices about migrants and refugees. The report has performed a useful task in helping governments see climate change in terms of risk – however adding migrants to a list of other catastrophic risks is both inaccurate and unhelpful.
In June we chaired a session looking at the connections between climate change and migration – and the policies that can be used to address the connection. This podcast is a recording of the debate in which a number of policy makers and researchers reflect on the issues.
The panel were:
Moderator: Alex Randall, UK Climate Change and Migration Coalition
Frank Laczko, Head of Migration Research Division, International Organization for Migration
Jonah Auka, Office of Climate Change and Development, Government of Papua New Guinea
Agata Sobiech, Programme Officer, Migration and Asylum Sector, DG International Cooperation and Development , European Commission
Image credit: Oxfam International (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) From Flickr
Last week I was on a panel that discussed the relationship between climate change, migration and health. The Royal Collage of Physicians performed a vital task in bringing together experts from these fields to explore the connections. The audience also provided vital insights into how climate linked migration might impact their work.
Inspired by the debate, here are my reflections of the issue as a whole. We’ve also created some infographics to help unpick the complex causal relationships that exist between these issues.
Is this a separate issue to the climate and health debate?
Yes I think it is. There is a growing literature on the connections between climate change and health. This often focuses on the health implication of rising temperatures, the spread of diseases to new areas and diet impacts of reduced agriculture. The Lancet released an assessment of these impacts in 2009 and is due to release another one shortly. The case I want to make in the following points is that the climate – migration – health nexus is actually a different issue.
There are two (complex) but distinct ways of connecting the three issues of climate, migration and health.
The first begins with the climate- health connection discussed above. But adds migration as a possible outcome of declining health resulting from climate change impacts. One of the forces that makes migration seem like an appealing option in the face of climate change could be declining health. Poor health could be a mechanism through which climate change impacts create the movement of people.
The second is to see climate linked migration and displacement as a force creating poor health. Migrants and displaced people often suffer unique and extremely difficult combinations health problems. These are often exacerbated by not being able to access medical care at all. And the health implications of making dangerous and difficult journeys. As climate change begins to reshape some patterns of migration and displacement, it may be that more people find themselves in these circumstances.
Poor health can therefore be a cause of movement as well as a consequence of it.
Migrant and refugee health
Climate change may create new patterns of migration and displacement. But won’t create fundamentally different kinds of migrants and refugees.
People who have a climate change dimension to their movement are likely to face similar difficulties to existing migrants and refugees. We can imagine also that people who have a climate dimension to their movement will also face similar health challenges to other kinds of migrants and refugees. It is unlikely they will face an entirely new and unique set of health problems. There is an extensive literature on the health and well-being of migrants and refugees. As climate change begins to reshape patterns of migration and displacement, this literature become increasingly important.
A doctor working at a mobile health clinic. The mobile clinics were established in Pakistan after flooding destroyed clinics and hospitals across the country in 2010. (CC BY 2.0) Russell Watkins / DFID from Flickr.
Migrants and the spread of disease
The debate about migration and climate change has always had some unhelpful elements. People fleeing climate change are often painted as a threat to the national security of developed countries. The image of the “climate refugee” and the idea of mass sudden migration linked to climate change has fuelled this.
There is a risk a narrative emerges in which climate change migrants could themselves be seen as the means by which diseases are spread to new areas. This seems to be nothing but a novel way of painting a vulnerable group of people as a threat, and fuelling existing prejudice. The debate about climate, migration and health needs to be about the well being of refugees and migrants. We must not allow the debate to be hijacked by people wishing to make it about the imaginary threat posed to the health of Western citizens by migrants and refugees.
Climate, migration, conflict and injury
Another connection that has been made is the relationship between climate, migration, conflict and injury. I think there are important connections here, but the causal links between these issues are not straightforward. The connection between climate change and conflict is controversial and contested. However the weight of evidence does point towards climate change playing a small but important role in increasing the risk of civil conflict. But the evidence does not show climate-linked migration as being the cause of this conflict.
In the digram below I think that (1) presents a simplified but compelling causal route connecting these issues. However (2) is less convincing because there is little evidence suggesting migrants and refugees are a ‘vector’ for violent conflict.
The way forward
These connections – complicated as they are – add weight to the argument for allowing more movement and creating options for people to move safely and legally. To the extent that people are facing ill-health due to climate change, moving could provide a way of protecting themselves against this. It is also clear that many people face incredible risks to their health while moving. The lack of legal migration options forces people to seek out dangerous routes that often result in injury and death. By making legal migration easier, people would have a way of protecting their health in the face of climate impacts. By increasing the number of legal migration options, the risk faced by making journeys would also be reduced.
Last week we chaired a debate called Migration, environment and climate change – evidence for policy. This short video gives a brief overview of some of the key points raised in the debate.
The debate was organised by the International Organisation for Migration and was part of the European Commission’s international development conference in Brussels – EU Dev Days 2015.
Image: 4 June 2015, Brussels – European Development Days Migration, environment and climate change – Evidence for policy. © European Union.
The panel were:
Moderator: Alex Randall, UK Climate Change and Migration Coalition (Right)
Frank Laczko, Head of Migration Research Division, International Organization for Migration (Right – centre)
Jonah Auka, Office of Climate Change and Development, Government of Papua New Guinea (Left – centre)
Agata Sobiech, Programme Officer, Migration and Asylum Sector, DG International Cooperation and Development , European Commission (Left)
Thumbnail image: Bernd Thaller, (CC BY-NC 2.0) From Flickr
Explaining complex global trends on Twitter is always difficult. Barak Obama proved yesterday that being the president of the US doesn’t make it any easier. He tried to express the complex relationship between climate change, human movement and conflict in a 140 character tweet.
Here’s the Tweet.
.@ZCarlander more severe weather events lead to displacement, scarcity, stressed populations; all increase likelihood of global conflict.
— President Obama (@POTUS) May 28, 2015
Is he right?
Perhaps it seems like hair-splitting to scrutinise one tweet with the level of detail that I’m about to. But arguably Obama is shaping the debate on climate change and its consequences. So some analysis is surely required.
Initially Obama claims that climate change will – or already is – leading to more severe natural disasters. This is undoubtedly true. Sure, he could have said “increasing the frequency or intensity of some kinds of disasters in some locations”. But he had to fit it all in a one tweet. Missing out the different role climate change plays in shaping different kinds of disasters is probably an acceptable compromise. There is strong evidence linking climate change to heat waves and extreme precipitation – leading to flooding. And the fingerprint of climate change is visible in a number of catastrophes such as the Horn of Africa droughts.
He next claims that these disasters lead to displacement. He’s correct on this count too. Displacement is always amongst the devastating impacts of most natural disasters. If we look back across the last decade of natural disasters the displacement of vast numbers of people is a familiar image. It is often the case that even after the initial impact of the disaster, people remain in camps or other forms of inadequate accommodation for years. Obama also states that disasters cause scarcity and stressed populations.
Finally Obama links these three factors – displacement, stressed populations and scarcity – to conflict. Specifically he links them to “global conflict”. This is where I think he’s in difficult territory. This is the point where – in my view – the balance between accuracy and jamming everything into 140 characters becomes a problem.
There is some evidence linking the impacts of climate change to increased levels of conflict. In fact the extent of this relationship was the subject of a huge academic dispute last year. What both sides of the dispute agreed on was that while climate change might be leading to more violence – it is by no means the most important factor causing conflict. Other political and economic forces will still be the most important drivers of conflict.
But this isn’t what Obama is saying. He’s arguing that climate change is going to lead to more “global conflict”. For a conflict to be global it presumable needs to involve more than one country. In fact the term “global” really suggest a large number of countries, from a number of continents all being drawn into a war.
There is little evidence that this will be a likely consequence of climate change. One of the things that academics consistently agree on is that climate change is unlikely to be a driver of inter-state warfare. It is unlikely to be a force that drives governments to use their armed forces against the armed forces of another state.
Obama’s tweet also reaches slightly beyond the evidence when it identifies the causal pathway linking climate change to conflict. The academic literature is still not at all clear on exactly how altered weather patterns lead to changes in levels of violence. While some researchers have found correlations between altered weather and upticks in violence, they have not conclusively identified exactly why one thing causes the other.
Obama’s tweet does, however, suggest a number of causes. Amongst them is displacement. There is little evidence that displaced people are a cause of armed violence. The existing evidence does not support the case that displaced people take part in armed violence, or that their presence leads to other groups committing more violent acts. It is far more likely that displaced people will be fleeing armed violence, than that they are the cause or perpetrators of violence.
This is an inaccuracy with consequences. It is not just an academic argument. Migrants and refugees already suffer shocking levels of violence and discrimination, often when they have reached places where they were hoping to find safety. One of the drivers of this violence and discrimination is the public perception that refugee and migrants are a threat, that they might carry out terrorist attacks or in some way disrupt a community or a country. A narrative which argues that displaced people might be a cause of war, terrorism or violence adds fuel to this.
So why has Obama made these connections? The Obama administration has rightly made climate change a key issue. Since the Democrats came to power in 2008 they have tried – with varying degrees of success – to legislate on reducing carbon emissions and broker various international and bilateral agreements on climate change.
This has obviously brought them into conflict with their Republican opponents, and particularly with parts of the Republican party that remain sceptical about climate change. This has lead the Obama administration to seek out arguments for action on climate change that might be appealing to Republicans – or at least be difficult for them to argue against.
The connection between America’s national security and climate change is key here. Obama (and other Democrats) have created a narrative in which climate change is a driver of terrorism and war and creates a threat to America’s national security. The Democrats’ hope is that by tapping into the traditionally Republican concerns of terrorism and national security they might go some way to neutralising the Republicans’ opposition to their climate change policies.
Has the strategy worked? It’s difficult to say. In general Republican politicians and commentators have not adopted these messages about climate change being a national security threat to the US. Climate change scepticism on the political right in America also remains strong. In fact the Republicans have even kicked back against the climate – security connections that the Obama administration has made. However, Obama has enjoyed a degree of success: he secured a bi-lateral agreement with China which could set the stage for a strong global agreement on climate change in Paris later this year.
However, we can still ask what the side effects of the Democrats’ narrative might be. The case I’m making here is that a likely consequence of making bold connections between climate change, displacement and war is that Obama has bolstered a narrative that fuels violence and discrimination against refugees and migrants.
Images: Barack Obama at White House by Pete Souza – White House (Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)