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The climate wars are coming – and more refugees with them

A new era of mass environmental emigration will confront us if global warming isn’t halted

September 17, 2015 2:00AM ET

In his State of the European Union address on Sept. 9, EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker broached a topic that until now has been virtually absent from discussion about Europe’s refugee crisis.

“Tomorrow morning we will have climate refugees,” he said bluntly, urging European leaders to tackle climate change, one of the factors exacerbating the ongoing exodus. “We should not be surprised or astonished if the first climate refugees are coming to Europe.”

Global warming is responsible for longer-lasting droughts, more violent storms and rising sea levels that worsen the living conditions of hundreds of millions of people. Its fallout, Juncker warned, will trigger massive and increasing refugee flows — unless the EU and its international partners get serious about reducing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

He called for an “ambitious, robust and binding” climate treaty at the United Nations climate change conference in Paris this December to prevent unmanageable emigration. The summit aims to forge an international treaty to keep the global average temperature increase below 2 degrees Celsius — a goal that looks increasingly unlikely even in the best-case scenario.

German sociologist Harald Welzer, who popularized the term “climate wars,” argues that a scarcity of resources — arable soil, food and water — is one of the powerful new forces shaping the 21st century. This has been intensified by the rise in global temperatures and ever more extreme weather.

As a result of climate change, Welzer wrote in his 2012 book, “Climate Wars: What People Will Be Killed for in the 21st Century,” “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 droughts, floods and soil erosion. Our not-so-distant future, he argued, 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 and Afghanistan and political repression in Eritrea. Climate change may not be as visible as some of these other causes, but it already plays a major role in those countries.

Take the war in Syria, which has caused 4 million people to flee since 2011. One of the conflict’s oft-overlooked causes was water shortage. A severe multiyear drought that began in 2007 caused crops to fail and arable land to turn into desert.

“Syria was destabilized by 1.5 million migrants from rural communities fleeing a three-year drought that 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,” Columbia University professor Richard Seager said in a recent study on the role of climate change in the Syrian conflict. “Syria is not the only country affected by this drying. Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Iraq and Iran are too.” 

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.

John Kerry

U.S. Secretary of State

This is not to suggest that climate change caused the 2011 uprising in Syria or other conflicts in the region. The core factors behind the popular protests were political — dictatorship, poor governance and economic mismanagement. Climate protection alone thus won’t solve them either. 

In addition to the Middle Eastern and North African countries that face water shortages, African states such as Somalia and Sudan and Central America, particularly Mexico, could descend into drought-fueled conflicts at any moment, according to Seager. This is why the United States can’t simply look away, not to mention California’s recurring episodes of drought and wildfires.

Fortunately, the U.S. appears to have an eye on the problem, judging from the White House’s renewed focus on climate change. “You think migration is a challenge in Europe today because of extremism,” Secretary of State John Kerry said at a global warming conference in Alaska earlier this month. “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.”

“Climate change is a threat multiplier because it has the potential to exacerbate many of the challenges we already confront today,” former Republican Sen. and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said at a conference in Peru in October. “The loss of glaciers will strain water supplies in several areas of our hemisphere. 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.”

As Friends of the Earth CEO Craig Bennett pointed out in The Guardian, “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 — Eritrea, Sudan and Nigeria experienced massive exoduses because of water shortages.

Much of the heavy lifting for the Paris summit has already been done. European and other international leaders have fires to douse all around them. World leaders may settle for short-term commitments in five-year cycles. Such an agreement 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 even the 2 degree goal is unrealistic, with 3 degrees the best we can hope for. Even so, the Paris summit remains a historic opportunity. In his speech, Juncker admitted that the EU is “probably not doing enough” to tackle climate change. Perhaps the admission is a sign that the refugee crisis has created momentum to tackle global warming.

Paul Hockenos is a journalist living in Berlin. He has covered the transformations of the EU for over 25 years.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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