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How does climate change lead to border tensions?

Posted By Johanna Hoffman, Thursday, August 6, 2020
How does climate change lead to border tensions? - Association of Professional Futurists

Johanna HoffmanJohanna Hoffman, a member of our Emerging Fellows program detects the probable border clashes that may be caused by climate change in her eighth blog post. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.



As the climate emergency grows in scope and scale, the world’s refugee crisis is slated to explode. While finding precise statistics is difficult, the UNHCR estimates that conflicts associated with climate change have created at least 9 million refugees in the last decade alone. By 2050, that number is likely to grow much higher. Among the many issues that stem from such scales of forced migration – from spikes in human rights violations to mounting economic hardships – border tensions are among the most aggressive and complex.



Climate change is a key driver in this dynamic. As we’ve explored previously, drought and famine resulting from climatic shifts have been directly linked to violent civil wars in Syria, Somalia and beyond, wars that have created millions refugees. If not ameliorated, such numbers will only increase. Researchers project that within the African continent, 250 million people live in regions that will be vulnerable to food and water insecurity in the coming decades. Three-quarters of the Sahel’s arable land will likely be lost by the end of the century, forcing many millions more to move. In low-lying areas – coastal zones support roughly 12 percent of the continent’s population - rising sea levels will increase pressures on African states, compounding existing governmental instabilities and sparking mass migrations at scales not seen before in human history.



When so many are on the move, conflicts follows. In recent years, Europe has become a flashpoint for such tensions. Over the past decade, millions of people fleeing war, climate-induced crises and chronic poverty from Africa, the Middle East and south Asia have sought refuge in European countries. Those who survive their often-dangerous journeys have found increasingly dark welcomes, as political groups and media sources progressively portray migration as a kind of invasion of people from different cultures. Themes of threat - to welfare systems, cultural norms and more - have been particularly prevalent in Italy, Spain and Britain. This trend of relating to refugees as ‘other’ harkens back to the racist overtones used to justify colonialism and its systems of subjugation, abuse and enslavement.



Many countries have responded by electing leaders who oppose immigration and shut down borders. Bulgaria and Hungary – primary routes into the rest of the European continent for refugees fleeing war in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan - have erected barbed wire fencing in recent years. Norway, Latvia and Estonia have likewise constructed new barriers within the past decade. In 2017 then-interior minister of Italy, Marco Minniti, made an agreement with Libya to supply technical support to the Libyan coastguard to fend African refugees away from Italian coastlines. Farther north, the UK has pressured France to build walls around the port of Calais on the tunnel connecting the two countries. Immigration and tensions around refugee resettlement have become such massive issues across the continent that previously unthinkable geopolitical shifts like Brexit are now reality.



As these border issues show, no place in our modern world is exempt from the impacts of climate change. When refugees escape aggression – increasingly instigated by climate related instabilities - they move, shifting the makeup, history, norms and trajectories of the places to which they flee. Border tensions are a significant part of our current responses to those changes.



Mass migration is both our present and, increasingly, our future. But it is also our past. Migration is a natural response to environmental change, one that humans have taken throughout our history. Migration is what allowed our ancestors to spread across the globe, creating the diverse cultures and societies that we know today. To summarize the writer Sonia Shah, migration has not been the response to crisis in our collective past, but rather the solution. If our go-to answers are to keep newcomers out and current border conditions continue, tensions between countries will only increase. However, if we can envision a future more akin to our past, in which migration serves as a source of hope rather than fear, we can write a different story.



© Johanna Hoffman 2020

Tags:  border tensions  climate change  migration 

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