Climate Change, Eco-Refugees, and Human Migration

“…  already … engendering a new type of refugee,
the “environmental migrant”.

“The document points out that last year the UN’s
appeals for emergency humanitarian aid were all,
bar one, connected to climate change.”

The Guardian/UK
March 10, 2008

EU Told To Prepare for Flood of Climate Change Migrants

Global warming threatens to severely destabilise
the planet, rendering a fifth of its population
homeless, top officials say

by Ian Traynor

In its half-century history, the EU has absorbed
wave upon wave of immigrants. There were the
millions of political migrants fleeing
Russian-imposed communism to western Europe
throughout the cold war, the post-colonial and
“guest worker” migrants who poured into western
Europe in the boom years of the 1950s and 60s,
the hundreds of thousands who escaped the Balkan
wars of the 90s and the millions of economic
migrants of the past decade seeking a better life.

Now, according to the EU’s two senior foreign
policy officials, Europe needs to brace itself
for a new wave of migration with a very different
cause – global warming. The ravages already being
inflicted on parts of the developing world by
climate change are engendering a new type of
refugee, the “environmental migrant”.

Within a decade “there will be millions of
environmental migrants, with climate change as
one of the major drivers of this phenomenon,”
predict Javier Solana and Benita Ferrero-Waldner,
the EU’s chief foreign policy coordinator and the
European commissioner for external relations.
“Europe must expect substantially increased
migratory pressure.”

They point out that some countries already badly
hit by global warming are demanding that the new
phenomenon be recognised internationally as a
valid reason for migration.

The immigration alert is but one of seven
“threats” that the two officials focus on in
pointing to the security implications and the
dangers to European interests thrown up by
climate change.

Their report, the first of its kind to be tabled
to an EU summit – opening on Thursday in Brussels
– amounts to a wake-up call to the governments of
Europe, a demand that they start taking account
of climate change and its impact in their
security and foreign-policy decisions.

The main message is that the immediate and
devastating effects of global warming will be
felt far away from Europe, with the poor
suffering disproportionately in south Asia, the
Middle East, central Asia, Africa and Latin
America, but that Europe will ultimately bear the

This could be in the form of mass migration,
destabilisation of parts of the world vital to
European security, radicalisation of politics and
populations, north-south conflict because of the
perceived injustice of the causes and effects of
global warming, famines caused by arable land
loss, wars over water, energy, and other natural

Solana and Ferrero-Waldner paint a picture of a
very bleak and very messy new world order which
may undermine the UN system.

“The multilateral system is at risk if the
international community fails to address the
threats. Climate change impacts will fuel the
politics of resentment between those most
responsible for climate change and those most
affected by it Š and drive political tension
nationally and internationally.”

This is not all futurology. The document points
out that last year the UN’s appeals for emergency
humanitarian aid were all, bar one, connected to
climate change.

As far as international security is concerned,
the report finds, global warming makes a bad
situation worse.

“Climate change is best viewed as a threat
multiplier which exacerbates existing trends,
tensions and instability,” Solana and
Ferrero-Waldner say. “The core challenge is that
climate change threatens to overburden states and
regions which are already fragile and
conflict-prone. The risks include political and
security risks that directly affect European

The report highlights several forms of conflict
that are likely to be driven by the planet
heating up:

· “Reduction of arable land, widespread shortage
of water, diminishing food and fish stocks,
increased flooding and prolonged droughts are
already happening in many parts of the world,”
Solana and Ferrero-Waldner say. Fresh water
availability could fall by up to 30% in some
regions, causing farming losses, surging food
prices and shortages, and civil unrest. “Climate
change will fuel existing conflicts over
depleting resources.”

· Around one-fifth of the planet’s population
inhabits coastal zones which are threatened by
rising sea levels and natural disasters. The
Caribbean, central America and the east coasts of
China and India are most exposed. “An increase in
disasters and humanitarian crises will lead to
immense pressure on the resources of donor

· The report notes that major land mass changes
are expected in the course of the century from
receding coastlines, meaning countries will lose
territory, while desertification could have a
similar effect. The result may be “a vicious
circle of degradation, migration and conflicts
over territory and borders that threatens the
political stability of countries and regions”.

· A similar result may be expected in failing
states, where frustration and disenchantment
breed ethnic and religious strife and political

· Competition for energy resources is already a
cause of conflict. This may get worse, not least
“because much of the world’s hydrocarbon reserves
are in regions vulnerable to the impacts of
climate change and because many oil and gas
producing states already face significant social,
economic and demographic challenges.”

Europe, the officials imply, needs to get its act
together if there is to be any chance of managing
the apocalyptic scenarios outlined. What the
report does not say is that if demographics are
any measure of potential power, Europe’s task is
that much harder.

The average European is currently aged 39 and
Europeans, including Russians, make up some 11%
of the world’s population of 6.7 billion.

By 2050 that figure will have shrunk to 7%, with
the average age of Europeans being over 47 and
the elderly outnumbering children by more than
two to one. A weaker Europe may have to cope with
the challenges listed by Solana and
Ferrero-Waldner, but environmental migrants may
enlarge and rejuvenate its population.
Areas under threat

The Arctic

The speed of polar ice cap melting will have a
large geostrategic impact, with conflicts likely
over the vast new mineral resources that will
become accessible, as well as the opening of new
sea routes for international trade. Rival claims
to the mineral wealth and shipping routes will
challenge Europe’s ability to secure its
interests in the region.

Latin America

The Caribbean and central America are already
badly affected by major hurricanes and extreme
weather linked with El Niño. This will get worse,
while weak governments will struggle to cope with
social and political tension fuelled by climate


Particularly vulnerable because of its low
ability to cope with climate change, which is
already a factor contributing to the Darfur
catastrophe and conflict in the Horn of Africa.
Three-quarters of arable rain-fed land in north
Africa and the Sahel could be lost. Some 5
million people in the Nile delta could be
affected by land losses due to rising sea levels
and salinisation by 2050.

Central Asia

Trouble ahead. The authoritarian regimes of the
region will become increasingly important because
of mineral wealth. But climate change means water
shortages are already being felt. Kyrgyzstan has
lost 1,000 glaciers over the past 40 years, while
Tajikistan’s glaciers have shrunk by one third.
Farming and power generation are already being
hit by water shortages.

Middle East

Water systems are already under intense stress,
with around two-thirds of the Arab world
dependent on water sources beyond their borders.
Water supply might fall by 60% this century in
Israel. Significant decreases expected to hit
Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Saudi Arabia, further
destabilising the “vitally strategic region”.

South Asia

Almost two billion Asians live within 35 miles of
a coast and many of them are likely to be
threatened by rising sea levels. Damage to
farming will make it difficult to feed rapidly
swelling populations. Another billion people will
be affected by a drop in meltwater from the
Himalayas. These vulnerable populations will also
be exposed to an increase in infectious diseases.

© 2008 The Guardian


Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed