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How might climate refugees trigger conflict?

Posted By Johanna Hoffman, Thursday, September 3, 2020

Johanna Hoffman, a member of our Emerging Fellows program detects the conflicts that may be raised by refugees migrating because of climate change in her ninth blog post. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.


Unrest often leads to unrest. It’s a truth that’s playing out again today as protests for racial and social equity accelerate across the United States, Europe, India, Brazil and beyond. While these demonstrations stem from longstanding anger over a status quo built on the legacies of colonialism and white supremacy, the impacts of COVID-19 have arguably augmented their intensity. This movement erupted after the world was gripped for months by isolation, fear, sickness and economic shutdown. Such intense strife lays fertile ground for frustration to transform into action.


Now imagine a world where COVID-19 is not an isolated incident but one of many progressively disastrous events. That is where we’re currently headed. Experts warn that raging wildfires like those that devastated Australia in 2019 will recur and grow. Superstorms like Hurricane Sandy will no longer be anomalies. When they strike, these events will wreak mounting costs, from loss of homes and habitats and jobs, to widespread loss of life. Longer term, systemic changes like sea level rise stand to spark more severe political instability, resource competition and forced migration than we as a species have ever seen.


The risks associated with the climate crisis are mounting so quickly that groups beyond the scientific community are now sounding the alarm. Last year’s Worldwide Threat Assessment from the U.S. intelligence community stated that “Global environmental and ecological degradation, as well as climate change, are likely to fuel competition for resources, economic distress, and social discontent through 2019 and beyond. Climate hazards … are intensifying, threatening infrastructure, health, and water and food security.”


The numbers of refugees that could arise from such degrees of instability are staggering. Hundreds of millions of people across the globe currently live in low-lying coastal areas. If seas rise just a couple of meters – which scientists predict could happen by or before the end of this century – tens of millions of people, if not hundreds, will be forced to flee. Such a change would create more environmental refugees than ever seen before. To put such numbers in perspective, the refugee crisis created by the Syrian Civil War, one of the major humanitarian disasters of this century and a source of widespread geopolitical tension across Europe, involved the relatively small amount of five million refugees. Imagine what conflicts might arise when hundreds of millions of people are on the move.


That is the reality we’re facing. Even if our most ambitious climate mitigation goals are met, we are still looking at futures with roughly 2.7 degrees Celsius of warming and 1.4 meters of sea level rise. These kinds of changes would spark a wide array of environmental discord, from drastic swings in precipitation patterns to increasingly intense coastal floods, threatening the lives and livelihoods of millions around the world. That’s a best-case scenario. Given the lack of international cooperation and global leadership, we’re slated to deal with situations far more dire.


As the COVID-19 pandemic is making abundantly clear, none of these shifts will unfold in a geopolitical vacuum. Coronavirus has spread rapidly since it first appeared in December of 2019, posing enormous challenges to the entire human population, from death and long-term health impacts to economic implosion. The myriad consequences of the climate crisis – mounting numbers of refugees, spikes in forced migration, border conflicts and increasing resource scarcity – will have similarly widespread impacts beyond their immediate origins.


Unrest, however, isn’t inherently evil. Current demands for racial and social justice are direct reminders that rapid action can cause positive change. Yet the pendulum can always swing quickly back in opposing directions. Adolf Hilter’s rise to power followed a period of progressive development during the Weimar Republic, characterized by growing support for reformist taxation, social welfare programs, labor unions, and economic opportunity for women. It also coincided with one of the worst depressions in modern German history, where the value of the German mark decreased so precipitously that residents needed wheelbarrows to carry enough paper money to buy single loaves of bread.


The international fallout of the coronavirus is creating similarly precarious repercussions. The growing impacts of the climate emergency will bring even more. Faced with such pressures, we can go the direction of Germany under Hitler, vilifying those who are different and taking solace in cultures of fear. Or we can learn from history and carve a different, more inclusive path.


© Johanna Hoffman 2020

Tags:  climate change  conflict  refugees 

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