A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

Feeling the Heat

The migration crisis is also a climate crisis.

Even though rarely discussed, climate change is one factor exacerbating the present refugee crisis engulfing Europe – and Germany in particular. However, EU climate protection policies could stem a new era of mass emigration.


© REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

In his State of the Union speech on September 9, Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, broached a topic that until now had been virtually absent from discussion about the refugee emergency. Climate change, he said bluntly, is one of the root causes of the ongoing exodus. Global warming is responsible for longer-lasting droughts, more violent storms, and rising sea levels that worsen the living conditions of hundreds of millions. Its fallout, Juncker warned, will trigger massive south to north refugee flows that will only increase in the years to come – unless the EU and its international partners get serious about reducing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

In a welcome show of foresight, Juncker said that an “ambitious, robust, and binding“ climate treaty is critical to prevent unmanageable emigration. A watershed moment is approaching, he warned: the United Nations climate change conference in December in Paris. The meeting’s goal is to forge an international treaty that will keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius – an aim that looks increasingly unlikely even in the best of scenarios.

The term “climate wars” was popularized by the German scholar Harald Welzer. He argues that one of the powerful new forces already shaping the 21st century is a scarcity of resources – food and water, arable soil – which the rise in global temperatures and ever more extreme weather has exacerbated.

As a result of climate change, he argues, “inhabitable spaces shrink, scarce resources become scarcer, and injustices grow deeper, not only between north and south but also between generations.” Countries in the southern hemisphere will suffer drought, floods, and soil erosion. Our not-so-distant future, he wrote presciently in his 2011 book Climate Wars: What People Will Be Killed For in the 21st Century, will be marked by violent conflicts over drinking water, enormous refugee movements, and civil wars in the world’s poorest countries.

The drivers of the current migration flows are complex and diverse: the Syrian war, poverty in the Balkans, instability in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Eretria. It may not be as visible as, say, the march of Islamic fundamentalism, but climate change already plays a major role in these places and these conflicts. Yet it is just a taste of what could be to come.

Take the war in Syria, which has caused four million people to flee since 2011. One of the war’s often overlooked causes was water shortage. A severe, years-long drought that began in 2007 caused crops to fail and crop land to turn into desert. The US author of a major study on the war and natural resources, Columbia University‘s Richard Seager, argues that the drought destabilized Syria by forcing 1.5 million migrants from rural communities to flee their homes. The drought “was made more intense and persistent by human-driven climate change, which is steadily making the whole eastern Mediterranean and Middle East region even more arid,“ says Seager.

It would be wrong to say that climate changed “caused” the uprising in Syria 2011 – or other conflicts in the region. The core factors driving it were political: the dictatorship, poor governance, economic mismanagement. Climate protection alone thus won’t solve them.

However, climate change exacerbated existing problems – and Syria is hardly the only country in the Middle East and North Africa where water is in short supply. Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Iraq, and Iran are drying up, while East African countries such as Somalia and Sudan could descend into drought-fuelled conflict at any moment, says Seager. Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Afghanistan are highly vulnerable, as is Central America, particularly Mexico. This means the US cannot look away – which would be hard anyway given the wildfires in California this past summer.

In fact, there are ever more signs that the US has an eye on the problem, which could be one of the motives behind President Obama’s new focus on climate issues. During a trip to Alaska in August, US Secretary of State John Kerry used unusually apocalyptic language when addressing a global warming conference. “You think migration is a challenge in 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,” he warned.

Even a few Republicans have linked security and global warming. Late last year, Obama’s then defense secretary, Chuck Hagel – a Republican – called climate change “a threat multiplier.“ “The loss of glaciers will strain water supplies in several areas of our hemisphere,” he said. “Destruction and devastation from hurricanes can sow the seeds for instability. Droughts and crop failures can leave millions of people without any lifeline and trigger waves of mass migration.”

Hagel singled out the Sahel region of Africa, which stretches from Senegal in the west to Eritrea in the east, including parts of Mali, Niger, Sudan and Nigeria. There desertification has placed millions at risk. As Craig Bennett, CEO of Friends of the Earth, points out, “mass migration will be occurring in many regions of the world, with or without armed conflict.” Even in years cooler than this one – the hottest on record ever – Eritrea, Sudan and Nigeria experienced exodus because of water shortages.

As helpful as the frankness of Hagel and the military establishment is in underscoring the danger of global warming, it’s also important that the Pentagon does not somehow become the main actor in finding a solution. Climate protection funding should not go to the military, an institution whose expertise is not environmental conservation.

It’s a lot to ask of European and international leaders to look down the road when they’ve got fires to douse all around them. But much of the heavy lifting for the Paris summit has already been done. Many experts believe that an agreement in Paris that fixes short-term commitments and five-year cycles with reviews of countries’ carbon emission cuts is the way to go. It would lack a larger vision beyond 2030, but it would secure greenhouse gas reduction until then. Long-term commitments without interim benchmarks could allow countries to slip behind on compliance. It might be the best we’ll get.

Some experts are now saying that even the 2 degree goal is now unrealistic – 3 degrees is now what we can hope for. Keep in mind that the damage we’re seeing now – if indeed climate change is behind it, which we can’t be sure of despite the high likelihood – is the consequence of temperatures rising less than one degree.

Even so, the Paris summit remains an historic opportunity that the EU can build on, recapturing the position it once held as trail-blazer and best practice model on climate change. In his speech, Juncker admitted that the EU is “probably not doing enough” to tackle climate change. He’s right. Indeed, it’s not an issue Juncker often alludes to. The EU has announced greenhouse gas emission cuts of 40 percent by 2030, which is commendable. But it’s not enough to secure a global commitment that will halt the processes of climate change. Moreover, environmental groups say the EU has yet to spell out how it will hit its climate and energy targets. Hopefully Juncker’s admission is a sign that the refugee crisis has created new momentum to tackle global warming.