Why we need to talk about climate migrants

Why we need to talk about climate migrants

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To say that we are at a critical phase in international efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions and limit warming to under 2°C, as mandated by the Paris Agreement, is a major understatement given the increased engagements, aggressive targets, renewed commitments and transformative climate policy setting around the globe. The almost palpable optimism is quite welcome —especially if, by the end of the year, the Glasgow conference (COP26) does more than just rehash the pomp and circumstance of past climate summits with little to no progress to show for it.

There is a chance COP26 could substantially move the needle, firmly placing the global community on a sustainable and irreversible path to net-zero emissions, hopefully a lot sooner than 2050. After all, the costs of climate change are only escalating, driven up sharply by the impact of COVID-19, which has put pressure on limited resources and diverted the attention of governments. The pandemic has also shrunk the policy and fiscal space, especially for poorer countries, to cope simultaneously with a public health nightmare, enhanced socioeconomic fragility and growing pressure to implement the kinds of climate-driven transformations needed to curb global greenhouse gas emissions.

Unfortunately, time is almost up. Last year, climate scientists reported troubling data, from record CO2 levels to soaring temperatures, shrinking polar ice and melting permafrost, in addition to accelerated deforestation, which has resulted in global forest losses the size of Libya in just three decades. Simply put, we are sliding ever closer to the tipping point, having taken too long to arrive at a moment of truth pertaining to the link between human activities and climate change. In addition, the delay also impacted our acknowledgment of what is now, thankfully, a universal truth— that it will take unprecedented human action to slow the planet's plunge back to an era four million years ago when temperatures were 4°C warmer and seas were 25 meters higher than they are now.

Worryingly, the current themes planned for Glasgow in November, focusing on renewables, transport and finance, look good on paper but do not go far enough. Most countries are close to achieving cuts in their emissions of less than 1 percent, rather than the roughly 45 percent needed by the end of this decade in order to meet the 2050 goals set in Paris. Additionally, there are still no details or plans to tackle other contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, such as agriculture; methane from livestock rearing, for example, has a global warming potential 30 times that of CO2 over 100 years. Other missing priorities include climate change’s impact on global health and the potential ramifications of missing proposed targets, one of which will be the inevitable upsurge in climate change-induced irregular migration, particularly from areas such as the Middle East and North Africa.

Beyond the current record-breaking temperatures in the region, it is also predicted that without substantial transformations and drastic reductions in emissions, the period between 2030 and 2050 will be particularly disastrous for the already drought-prone, food and water insecure Middle East. By then, the cumulative and visible effects of climate change will have intensified, resulting in frequent heatwaves of more than 55°C —higher still in urban areas, where more than half a billion of the Arab world’s still growing population will probably be residing, going by current urbanization trends.

Worryingly, the current themes planned for Glasgow in November, focusing on renewables, transport and finance, look good on paper but do not go far enough.

Hafed Al-Ghwell

Parts of the region are already uninhabitable and climate change will only rapidly expand these inland areas or drown the coastlines as sea levels rise, resulting in a runaway warming planet becoming yet another driver of migration and displacement from the region, alongside conflict, poor governance and socioeconomic fragility.

When an estimated 600 million people are faced with life-threatening heatwaves, subsequent food and water shortages, potential for renewed conflicts due to the weaponization (and/or monetization) of strategic resources and greater social fragmentation, the only way to survive is to head for cooler, resource-abundant and still thriving parts of the world. Unfortunately, given current developments and responses to irregular migration, it will probably be far worse for “climate migrants,” since their status is not exactly clear. Peopledisplaced by climate change are not protected under the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, nor are there any international frameworks or instruments countries can follow when trying to provide for them.

Curiously, given the unprecedented threats posed by climate change and the incalculable harm regions such asthe Middle East will face as a result, there is a lack of international will to discuss the issue of climate migrants at the highest level, nor are there any serious attempts at amending existing conventions on displaced persons to cover 21st century challenges. We have more refugees now than there were at the end of the Second World War, and given the complexities and sheer scale of climate change driven migration from the Middle East, existing frameworks will lead only to more chaos, confusion, inconsistency and — for the nefarious elements— lucrative trafficking opportunities.

There are a number of arguments raised against having a climate migrant convention, premised on the unusual conclusion that displacements will occur only within countries. However, this applies only to the planet’s more temperate and mostly habitable regions. For the Middle East, both the inland and coastal areas will be rendered unlivable, forcing cross-border migration, especially considering that climate change-induced disasters will be in addition to the region’s already existing displacement drivers already mentioned above.

In addition, some believe the effects of climate change will cause conditions within countries to deteriorate gradually leading to a slower, more orderly movement of people within existing conventions and frameworks. This is opposed to conflict driven displacement, which is often abrupt, chaotic and in some cases violent, which creates the need for a global standard as set in 1951. However, such a perspective is already flawed in the Middle East, where a prolonged drought contributed to the outbreak of the Syrian civil war. Climate change-induced water scarcity fears are also at the root of the tension between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia concerning the Nile River. In short, the region is already experiencing what some casually dismiss as a “gradual deterioration” instead of using what little time is left to start these important discussions and make them a formal part of global climate summit agendas.

Going by the 1951 Refugee Convention, flawed as it may be, it is evident that the international community prefers to deal with human displacement in a consistent, coordinated and orderly fashion. Yet the urgent push for more aggressive action on emissions has still not elicited substantive proposals on how the world should deal with an upswell in climate migrants from regions such as the Middle East, which are likely to be most affected by climate change. It can only be hoped that in the coming months, as the global community gets more serious about climate commitments, there will be room to discuss these challenges and how to mitigate them before disaster strikes.

  • Hafed Al-Ghwell is a senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute at the John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell
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