The culprit in Ethiopia is the encroaching Danakil Desert. In Bangladesh it’s the unforgiving Brahmaputra and Padma rivers. In Tuvalu it’s the rising Pacific Ocean. Water—too much or too little—is disrupting millions of lives around the world. Farmers are usually the first affected, but the ramifications soon ricochet up and down the economic spectrum. Prices escalate; scarcity sets it. People find that their way of life has become untenable, so they pack up and set out for a more secure environment.
We’ve come up with terms such as climate refugee or environmental migrant to explain something that for eons was just a natural process. People have always followed the rains or fled from them. The Industrial Revolution briefly fooled people into believing that we could tame Mother Nature, but now climate change has put the kibosh on that fantasy. Our stick-built dwellings and constant need for food are easily overpowered by a tornado, drought, monsoon, or earthquake. When your home is swept away, migrating to a less tumultuous environment is just good common sense. The problem is, finding a less tumultuous environment is becoming increasingly difficult.
The International Organization for Migration defines environmental migrants as “persons or groups of persons who, for compelling reasons of sudden or progressive changes in the environment that adversely affect their lives or living conditions, are obliged to leave their habitual homes, or choose to do so, either temporarily or permanently, and who move either within their country or abroad.”
This is a really broad definition—almost useless. Does it include retirees who move to Florida because they simply cannot bear to shovel the snow from one more Minnesota sidewalk?
How Many Environmental Migrants Are There?
As early as 1988 one researcher estimated that worldwide, 10 million people met the definition of environmental migrant. By the mid-1990s at least one researcher had upped that figure to 25 million and forecasted that it would rise to 150 million by 2050. Hardest hit would likely be China, India, and Bangladesh. Makes sense: Lot of people, lots of poverty, little security.
However, some people question these numbers, based on the broad definition of environmental migrant. Alex Randall of the UK-based Climate Outreach and Information Network says it’s misleading to add up “all of the people who’ve been displaced by any kind of natural disaster and [label] them climate refugees.” Agreed. It’s simplistic to equate Hurricane Katrina survivors with the Dust Bowl Okies, although it may be a good starting point for a discussion.
Stephen Castles of Oxford University’s International Migration Institute believes that the 150 million refugee number, popularized by Norman Myers, is a vast oversimplification designed to “scare public opinion and politicians into taking action on climate change.” Agreed again. We need to save the scare mongering for when it’s absolutely necessary. It’s not useful to equate Florida retirees with Ethiopian subsistence farmers.
The takeaway: Be skeptical of statistics.
Environmental Migrants and War
But one comparison that is useful is that between environmental migrants and war refugees. The link isn’t direct, but it is compelling. The idea goes like this: An environmental catastrophe leads to a mass migration that upsets the social order of a country. Systems break down, and the result is war. In such cases, climate change is considered a threat multiplier. It’s a variable that negatively impacts many other variables. Now this is a useful concept. In this context, we understand that war results in a tide of refugees. But what causes the war? The answer is often a disruption of environmental resources. Thus, in a roundabout way, a tide of environmental migrants exposes weaknesses in the social order, which leads to war and a secondary, often much larger, tide of refugees.
Let’s take a look at Syria. Since war broke out in 2011, nine million Syrians have fled their homes. Three million of these refugees have fled to other countries, causing an international crisis. But what caused the war? Easy answer: A dictator trying to squash the Arab Spring. More thoughtful answer: Epic drought.
In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Colin P. Kelley, a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, stated that “there is evidence that the 2007-2010 drought contributed to the conflict in Syria. . . . Widespread crop failure [led to] a mass migration of farming families to urban centers.” Summarizing the study for the New York Times, Henry Fountain explained how the drought did not follow natural variations for the region. Instead, it “matched computer simulations of how the region responds to increases in greenhouse-gas emissions.” The drought was caused by “a weakening of winds that bring moisture-laden air from the Mediterranean and hotter temperatures that cause more evaporation.” Thus, the Fertile Crescent—that Cradle of Civilization we all know and love—is no longer fertile.
The estimated 1.5 Syrian environmental migrants who moved from failing rural areas to urban areas created an untenable social situation that lead to the Arab Spring uprising against Bashar al-Assad. Social scientists are careful to describe the drought as just one contributing factor. (The influx of a million refugees from war-torn Iraq was another factor.)
Even the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recognizes the link between climate change and armed conflict that leads to a refugee situation.
President Obama has weighed in on the phenomenon as well, noting in a 2014 speech at West Point that climate change is a “creeping national security crisis” and that the country’s armed forces will increasingly need to “respond to refugee flows, natural disasters, and conflicts over water and food.”
Problems cannot be solved until they are acknowledged. Saying the world has 250 million environmental refugees only obfuscates the matter. Your Aunt Myrtle in Boca Raton has nothing in common with a resource-poor family whose rice paddy in Southeast Asia has been obliterated by a landslide. Myrtle has a choice. The rice farming family has a choice only if you consider starving a choice.
The thousands of Syrian war refugees who are desperately seeking a better life in Europe are fleeing not only violence but also an encroaching desert and food insecurity. Recognizing the complexity of this situation is the first step in eliminating knee-jerk reactions to seal borders and limit immigration. We are all pawns in Mother Nature’s cruel game of climate change. Human migration across the globe in response to the environment is simply a part of the natural order, whether it takes place on foot, in ferries, or via airplane.