Climate change could make refugees of us all

Since our first ancestors emerged in Africa millions of years, ago, the human story has been one of migration. Unfortunately, climate change may make it become a necessity rather than a firm choice.

Like any form of life on Earth, humans have shown a remarkable capacity to survive by multiplying their numbers and spreading across virtually all inhabitable corners of the globe. Starting from humble origins, as the ancestors of mammalian life millions of years ago, humans have made migration an integral part of their survival.

It is estimated that the first journeys out of Africa began at least 200,000 years ago or so, as the last Ice Age began to draw to a close, and the frozen tracts of the north began to thaw and become hospitable. Europe, Asia and Australasia became human outputs at some point within the last 40,000 years of history, but it took until just the last 12,000-15,000 years for humans to finally cross the land bridge between Russia and Alaska and reach the southernmost tip of South America.

As we all know, climate change is expected to increase the likelihood of a number of natural hazards, such as drought, rising sea levels, extreme weather and fires, and what we do know is that they affect more vulnerable populations disproportionately.

– Cecilia Gärding, EU Consultant at Applied Value Group

Some of the world’s low-lying island nations in the Pacific might not have been populated until as recently as 2,600 years ago or so, when Rome was on the cusp of becoming a major superpower and eventually an empire over in Europe.

Despite all this change and migration, the future of humanity looks cloudy and could be fraught with danger. Our ancestors left Africa as populations grew and they sought out fertile land to start civilisation as we know it. Increasingly, migration could become a decision made out of necessity because our changing climate is rendering some places incapable of supporting life for much longer. This is the story of climate refugees.

On the move

The news headlines are currently full of discussion about the situation in Afghanistan: the resurgence of the Taliban have forced many to try to leave the country for safer havens in other countries, for fear of what they will do to them and their hard-fought freedoms. The UK now intends to welcome 20,000 Afghan refugees in the coming years, urging other countries to join in welcoming those in need. Migration has been a hot topic in countries such as the United States and blocs such as the EU, for they are some of the wealthiest corners of the planet, and some the most popular destinations for people to migrate to.

The EU is especially experienced in the matter of migration, refugee admission and asylum, for its proximity to some of the world’s most war-torn and shell-shocked regions, including countries such as Syria and Libya. However, in recent times, the term ‘climate refugee’ has seen its usage grow considerably. The World Economic Forum went as far as to say climate refugees, or those who had to flee their homes due to adverse environmental changes, are the “forgotten victims” of climate change.

We spoke to Cecilia Gärding, a new EU Consultant at Applied Value Group, a management consulting and investment organisation which subscribes to the notion of Lean Growth. This is a philosophy that means going beyond generating profit for profit’s sake and leaving behind a more sustainable financial impact on the world. Cecilia has a background working in political science and her work is predominantly based around environmental concerns as well as searching for business plans to match the sustainability criteria outlined by the EU’s European Climate Law among other EU-wide green strategies and targets.

Cecilia maps out the plight of the typical climate refugee, telling us: “As we all know, climate change is expected to increase the likelihood of a number of natural hazards, such as drought, rising sea levels, extreme weather and fires, and what we do know is that they affect more vulnerable populations disproportionately.”

What starts as something inherently natural uproots whole communities, leaving devastation in its wake in a physical sense but also in a social one. Communities which had generations of history tied to one place are fractured as they are forced to leave everything they know for safer ground, potentially in a completely foreign country. Climate refugees aren’t small in number at present – the Brookings Institution estimated that there were at least 20.4 million people defined as climate refugees in 2019.

By 2050, the World Economic Forum warns that this could rise to 1.2 billion people displaced by climate-related events, but despite such alarmingly high numbers of people potentially at risk, there is an astonishing lack of legal recognition of such people for now. Even the EU lacks formal recognition of climate refugees, but has started the conversation by attempting to propose an official definition the 26-member bloc can agree with.

Hidden victims

Not even the 1951 UN Geneva Convention gives climate refugees the luxury of recognition yet, reflecting that many of our key institutions globally are too slow to reflect the changing nature of the problem facing us. At present, the Convention is only designed to offer protections to those fleeing violence, persecution or war, but not from environmental changes. Such a lack of foresight is indicative of the plight many such refugees face: nature isn’t the same as an aggressor state or terrorist organisation.

Nature is all around us, and while much of it is not a living thing, it serves as a cradle of life but can equally take it away through flooding, droughts, landslides, earthquakes and volcanic activity to name a few, plus all of the unpleasant circumstances these disasters can cause: famine, epidemics, social unrest, and limited access to resources.

In 2015, the EU saw Germany receive over one million refugees from war-torn Syria in a matter of weeks, one of the largest influxes of people into the country since its reunification in 1990. While Germany was lauded for offering a safe place for the refugees to come to in a time of great need, the policy divided the political sphere, prompting a resurgence of far-right political movements with an anti-migrant agenda. This episode is something of a glimpse into the world of tomorrow – how will countries with ageing populations such as the UK, Germany, Italy, France, Sweden and Spain be able to justify closing the doors to refugees in the event of another mass-movement of people to Europe’s shores?

I think it’s better to give the floor to indigenous peoples who have ensured that a river or a place has always been pristine. It would be interesting for the future.

– Cecilia Gärding, EU Consultant at Applied Value Group

While the Syrian crisis is predominantly a story about people at war with one another, a climate-related event is like an invisible enemy we won’t see until it’s too late. Not even wealthy countries like Sweden, where Cecilia is from, are immune to the effects of climate change, as she admitted to us.

“We [Swedish people] as a country have to also look into the rising sea levels, since we are a country where the largest cities are close to the coastline…We have to create a risk analysis…How will we survive? I mean, Stockholm is built on water…We need to educate our population, especially the ones living in urban areas, on how they can live a more sustainable life…We all have to do our part.”

Sweden has historically been a country with high levels of net migration since the start of the post-war period, helping push its population over 10 million in recent years. However, much of this flow of people has been primarily related to people looking for jobs or to be reunited with family. In the coming decades, Sweden and other wealthy countries in the West might face increasing numbers of people wishing to enter the country for one simple reason: the environment has changed so much that there’s nowhere left for them to go.

Recognising the plight

As mentioned, the EU is making moves towards trying to recognise climate refugees, but as we have already explained, many wealthy countries are also under threat from rising sea levels. However, what is increasingly apparent is that some countries are far more vulnerable than others. Take the example of Bangladesh, a country of over 160 million people all living in a landmass which is effectively a low-lying river delta spanning 148,460km squared.

At least 40 per cent of Bangladesh is less than five metres above sea level. If sea levels rise by 50cm by 2050, that could mean 11 per cent of the country being submerged before too long, but not before the effects of salinisation begin to take root. As the rising seas continue to advance, land which used to be fertile will be rendered barren and unable to support agriculture as salty water begins to infiltrate the soil. The UK faces a serious threat from rising sea levels of its own.

Assuming the world is able to adhere to the Paris Agreement and keep the global temperature rise limited to two degrees celsius above pre-industrial levels, sea levels may only rise by a median of 26cm. However, under a worst-case five-degree scenario, the sea could rise by as much as 1.78 metres. Nature would feed into the process, with melting glaciers and ice sheets adding to push the total rise to two metres. According to the FireTree Flood app, a rise of up to two metres would mean large parts of the Fens, a low-lying floodplain in East Anglia, would be reclaimed by the sea once more, having previously been drained extensively back in the 1700s.

I’m definitely positive, the direction is going the right way, so keep your heads up, but be kind and do something nice to someone else. Today, there are groups working and reaching out to refugees, maybe in your local area.

– Cecilia Gärding, EU Consultant at Applied Value Group

Parts of London could also risk seeing greater likelihood of flooding, as the River Thames might burst its banks in the event of high rainfall. As recent floods in the capital and further afield in continental Europe have shown this summer, no country is truly an island nor is anyone immune from the impact of climate change. The only difference is that some countries wield greater clout in doing something about this problem, whether that’s through sheer wealth and purchasing power, or through access to advanced technology.

The EU is home to over 445 million people as of 2020, roughly on par with the combined populations of the US and Japan, with an economy worth $15 trillion, one sixth of the world’s total economic output. If there’s one thing Europeans know what to do other than innovate, it’s their ability to shop and spend their earnings on consumer goods in their spare time. Cecilia tells us about a work project she is part of, in conjunction with a group called Oh My Greens, involving what she calls vertical farming. This new form of agriculture means produce is grown beneath LED lights in shelving units while the plant’s roots are dipped in a nutrient solution or mist.

The project Cecilia is involved in intends to work in compliance with the aims of the Paris Agreement and the EU Commission’s Farm to Fork strategy. Instead of using soil and fertilisers, which can be resource-intensive, vertical farming produce is grown in a more space-age way which could dramatically reduce carbon footprints and help European consumers reduce their own impact through the foodstuffs they put in their shopping baskets.

“We can reduce the impact of climate change especially through strong reductions in carbon dioxide emissions…Actually, the EU has managed to do this already, if you look at 2019 – emissions down by an estimated 25 per cent compared to 1990. In the same period, the EU grew by 62 per cent, so this proves that we can actually tackle climate change and ensure sustained economic growth and job creation at the same time.” Economic growth with lower emissions is an impressive record, but ideas such as a move towards a circular economy are likely to result in even greater reductions in carbon footprints if replicated across the EU and beyond.

Strengthening the right people

Cecilia is convinced that time is of the essence to empower the right people to help ensure they don’t find themselves in the unfortunate situation of ever having to become climate refugees. While discussing the topic of giving rights to nature, as the Earth Law Centre is campaigning for, Cecilia brought the conversation back to the people most affected by climate change. “Another way to go about this is to strengthen the indigenous peoples’ rights, because they are in harmony with nature”, she tells us.

“I think it’s better to give the floor to indigenous peoples who have ensured that a river or a place has always been pristine. It would be interesting for the future.”

Cecilia’s words remind us of the tireless work conducted by the likes of the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau tribe indigenous to the Brazilian Amazon Rainforest, who number no more than 300 people in total. Don’t let their small population fool you, as this is a tribe on a mission to save the planet in their own way. This tribe avoided all contact with the outside world until the 1980s, but logging and mining have led to mass deforestation, making it necessary for them to now use drone technology to keep an eye on their home and protect it from harm. Such indigenous peoples need as much help as they can get, especially now that the Amazon Rainforest reportedly emits more carbon than it can capture.

While the natural growth of the trees helps sequester 0.5 billion tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere each year, forest fires put another 1.5 billion tonnes back into the environment, making it look like a losing game for now, as nature is only able to offset a third of the damage mostly caused by human activity. Such behaviour is indicative of the problem we face at present: what one person does to better themselves in one corner of the globe produces a pronounced butterfly effect, harming many more people on the other side of the world.

As we conclude our conversation with Cecilia, she does suggest there is room for optimism, especially with regards to the plight of climate refugees. “I’m definitely positive, the direction is going the right way, so keep your heads up, but be kind and do something nice to someone else. Today, there are groups working and reaching out to refugees, maybe in your local area.”

“Why not go there and see what you can do? This is what we can do and you can learn something about the world by being part of this.”

This World Humanitarian Day, it serves us best to remember that we’re all human and a safe place to settle is one of the basic needs at the base of our hierarchy of needs pyramid, as suggested by US psychologist Abraham Maslow. Climate change may yet make refugees of all of us if we’re not careful, and the issue with this is obvious: people from other countries have somewhere to seek refuge in coming to, if they wish to knock on our door. If we lose our own homes to climate change, there’s nowhere left to go as we only have one planet. What we choose to do with the time left to us will decide whether more of us can remain in our homes for longer.

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