Syria is Just the Prelude to a Much Greater Climate-Driven Refugee Crisis

© Josh Sager – September 2015

According to UNHCR estimates, 9.5 million Syrians have been displaced by the war that has gripped their country for the last few years—of these refugees, nearly a third have left Syria to seek out a better life in Europe or the surrounding nations in the Middle East. This flood of Syrian refugees into Europe has garnered immense attention in the media, enflamed anti-immigrant biases in European nationalists, and motivated many civic leaders to push for greater acceptance of those who are seeking safety. With no end to the conflict in sight, the flow of refugees is likely to continue into the near future and remain a significant problem.

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Imagine how bad things are in Syria are when trying to cross the Mediterranean like this is the “safer” option.

While the Syrian refugee crisis is a humanitarian nightmare and a serious logistic/economic problem for the nations that host refugees, it is, in the grand scheme of things, a very minor forerunner to a much larger refugee crisis. Global climate change has become virtually unstoppable and reputable assessments of its future effects conclude that it could displace as many as 250 million people by the year 2050 (3.6% of humanity).

The actual mechanisms for climate-based population displacement are fairly simple, albeit extremely difficult to mitigate.

Many coastal areas will be rendered uninhabitable due to flooding and storm damage (ex. New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina). This will create millions of refugees who must travel inland, particularly in Southeast Asia, India, China, and the southeast USA. This is particularly worrying, as many large cities have been built on the ocean (which is necessary to facilitate trade) and some of the most vulnerable cities are simply impossible to save.

According to the World Bank, the ten most vulnerable major cities are: ”1) Guangzhou, 2) Miami, 3) New York, 4) New Orleans, 5) Mumbai, 6) Nagoya, 7) Tampa, 8) Boston, 9) Shenzen, and 10) Osaka.” The refugee crisis that will be created when large portions of these cities become uninhabitable due to climate change cannot be ignored. Just to put it into perspective, Guangzhou, just one of these cities, is the 4th most populous metropolitan area in the world and has nearly 24 million residents—if it were a nation, it would be the 52 most populous, right ahead of Australia (23.9 million), Taiwan (23.5 million), and Syria (23.4 million).

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The top 20 at-risk cities, taking into account economic effects and population displacement.

Millions of refugees will be forced to leave their homes in these large coastal metropolitan areas and will be internally displaced. This displacement will disrupt local economies and will create internal tension within societies that could destabilize nations.

While coastal areas are flooding, some inland areas will be baking in the sun, experiencing extreme droughts and famines. Africa, the Middle East, Central America, and the Southwest USA are all at extreme risk for these droughts and many scientists (including NASA) have predicted the coming of decade-long “megadroughts” in these areas.

The acute consequences of increasing the heat energy trapped in our atmosphere are increases in the average temperature and the frequency of extreme heat events. Just last June, India had a heat wave that killed over 2,300 people while Iran experienced unbelievable temperatures of 163 degrees—these do not prove anything in and of themselves, but are part of a larger trend of warming and illustrate the harms that can come from warming. Excessive heat is a very real danger, particularly to poor, elderly, or malnourished citizens (those with already compromised health) of under-developed nations.

From a longer-term perspective, a heating of the environment causes droughts and famines. These resource shortages are serious risks to the health of millions of people and act as a destabilizing influence on entire nations. In fact, the droughts in Syria and Egypt were major precipitating events for the internal strife in those nations (the Arab spring in Egypt and the Syrian civil war), if not the primary catalyst that led protests to become widespread.

From an international relations perspective, droughts and famines are immensely dangerous and can lead to a whole host of different conflicts. Nations that are suffering a drought start bleeding refugees into surrounding nations, increasing tensions between the nations, or may even begin active hostilities over the ownership of scarce resources (ex. a river).

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These risks are very well established and the US military has declared climate change to be a serious security threat and a major risk factor for violent flare-ups in Africa and the Middle East. Internally, the military considers climate change to be a “threat multiplier” in that it takes existing instability and unrest and magnifies it, making it more likely to explode into violence or cause radicalization. Because of these finding, the military is actually one of the largest supporters of policy aimed at mitigating climate change.

As climate change becomes more extreme in the coming decades, droughts and famines will destabilize already unstable regions, internally displace millions of refugees and force millions more to travel across borders to seek shelter. Conflicts will grow larger and the number of refugees fleeing the combination of natural and human dangers will swell to truly unmanageable heights.

The international community is having a hard time taking care of a three million refugees from a single nation. Imagine what it will be like when climate change creates millions of new refugees every couple years, throws entire regions into turmoil, and reduces the total food supply. Entire cities will have to move their populations and large pieces of infrastructure will need to be abandoned. Food, water and space are not unlimited, and this increase in refugees will strain the infrastructure of any nation that is decent enough to try to help out.

Fortunately, this situation isn’t without hope. Immediate action by the wealthiest and most powerful international forces (the USA, China, the EU, etc.) can mitigate the damage from climate change by investing in sustainable development and creating plans to handle large influxes of refugees. By investing in clean energy, developing better water treatment methods, and finding more sustainable food sources, we can stretch our available resources and increase our capacity to accommodate those who are displaced.

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