Among the various revelatory aspects of Pope Francis’ encyclical on climate change, released to the public today, one of the overlooked warnings buried in the nearly 200-page document could trigger a new dialogue on another urgent global crisis: migration.
In the encyclical’s first chapter, the pope’s greatly anticipated letter recognizes the “tragic rise” of immigrants fleeing poverty from environmental ruin in an age of climate change.
Declaring that refugees who have yet to be recognized by international governing bodies “bear the loss” of abandonment, the pope calls out the “widespread indifference” to “these tragedies” taking place around the world. Importantly, the letter cites the environmental effects of the “enormous consumption of some rich countries” and its repercussions on the farming practices in the poorest places on earth, notably in Africa.
By connecting the migrant crisis to the issue of global warming, the pope makes clear the need for collective responsibility on these conjoined fronts. The key line in his encyclical embraces a long-time demand of the global south: for the global north to recognize its “ecological debt.”
An estimated 1,800 migrants from the Middle East and North Africa have died in the last six months while attempting to cross the Mediterranean to Europe, according to international observers. Those who have reached Italian shores now surpass 50,000. According to a report released today by the United Nation refugee agency, a staggering 59.4 million people have been displaced from their homes in the last year, marking the worst migration crisis since World War II. The report calls it a “paradigm change.”
Francis’ message, released amid a growing international feud over the fate of unceasing waves of migrants and refugees making the dangerous Mediterranean crossing, provides a broader context for an international crisis that few have yet to link with climate change. In sum, global warring can no longer be separated from global warming.
Less than two months after an estimated 800 refugees drowned in the latest capsizing of smuggling boats from the ports of Libya, a political split between European nations over a shared immigration and refugee policy has overshadowed the climate origins of much of the crisis.
In truth, a large number of migrants are fleeing war-torn or politically volatile situations, such as Syria, that have their roots in drought and destabilization brought on by global warming. A recent study released in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concluded that the “drought of the severity and duration of the recent Syrian drought, which is implicated in the current conflict, has become more than twice as likely as a consequence of human interference in the climate system.”
The denial of the migration crisis mirrors the denial of climate change. Yet Europe — and the rest of the globe — can no longer afford to ignore the cycles of refugees on their doorsteps any more than they can the increasing frequency of extreme weather disruptions, such as the flooding in Georgia this week.
Having given up its Mare Nostrum policy of rescuing the tens of thousands of migrants arriving on its southern shores, Italy recently issued a threat to provide travel visas to refugees — a way of shaking up European countries that have opted for denial and hedged on accepting quotas for migrants. (France and Switzerland have blocked entry of recent arrivals from Italy, and Austria and Hungary have threatened to close their borders as well.)
The pope’s compelling call — that the refusal to see this conjoined environmental and migration front indicates a lack of social responsibility for a “civil society” — is a rebuke of such lackluster responses. It could force the global community to go beyond crisis management and lay out a long-term plan that recognizes the displacement of populations from climate destabilization. This crisis goes far beyond Europe’s borders; it’s a global reality for sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia and Central America. Any discussion of how to manage it must thus involve a broader spectrum of partners than are currently on board.
A new dialogue — one that recognizes climate migration as a long-term reality rather than a fleeting issue — could loosen the current deadlock on immigration quotas. It could also shift focus from simply rescue and aid on European shores to ensuring that the United Nations and especially the global north make good on their ecological debt — in the form of a $100 billion fund for regenerative agriculture and sustainable solutions for climate-affected countries.
At the very least, it would be a crucial first step in renewing the dialogue, as Francis concludes, about how we’re building a “future for the planet.”