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Emerging Securities Part 3 of 3: Fleeing For Safety, The Link Between Our Changing Climate And Migration

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By Michael Head

· 6 min read

Climate change and environmental collapse are undoubtedly two of the greatest security threats facing international society today. Scientists at the University of Bern have concluded that the speed and extent of current global warming is unparalleled by a similar event in 2000 years. Despite this, the din created by these global matters has, at least in Britain, been drowned out by the asinine rumble of Brexit proceedings and domestic in-fighting. The following articles will point out, through the lenses of international inequality, crime and migration, that climate scepticism or governmental inertia surrounding it, is self-defeating, not only for the planet at large, but also for the domestic security and legitimacy of nation states.


Given the increasing precedence of jingoistic anti-immigration politics in the Western hemisphere, particularly in the shape of Trump’s pledge to “build a wall,” and an increasing number of forced migrants from extreme regions such as the Sahel, climate change must be integrated far more thoroughly into our understanding of global migration patterns. Centrally, those states pursuing stringent border policies would be far better served by leaders who recognise climate change as a key factor behind the increasing number of migrants and refugees trying to enter their countries in the first place. There is also scope to introduce the term “climate refugee” into international discourse, where currently there is limited protection for those forced from their homes due to environmental degradation.

To outline the startling correlation between climate change and migration, it is worth referring to the research carried out by Professor Norman Myers. A well respected Oxford don on the matter, Myers estimates, albeit roughly, that extreme environmental degradation could leave 200 million climate migrants displaced by 2050. This alone is greater than the current total migrant population and in real terms would mean one in every 45 people will have been driven from their homes at the hands of climate change by the middle of the century. The extreme predictions issued by researchers - constant droughts, intense rainfall patterns, smaller crop yields, depleted fish stocks, widespread health problems, reduced ice coverage, rising sea levels and frequent flooding - are well documented. However, these physical impacts appear to be neglected by key states, institutions and organisations in their approaches to migration and environmental policy.

Trump’s pledge to build a border wall along the US’ southern border proves this. Trump’s xenophobic and lazy response to what he perceives as a border “crisis” is shocking, given that unauthorised migration across the US borders is at a record low in recent years. His short response demonstrates an ignorance towards the growing threat posed to Central America by climate change and environmental degradation. As outlined by Myers, the effects of environmental degradation have begun forcing citizens north, to where the economy and workforce is industry-based rather than agricultural. In a Guardian article, it is reported that the average temperature in Central America has increased 0.5C since 1950 and it is projected to rise another 1-2 degrees before 2050. This suggests the guidelines of the Paris Climate Agreement will be surpassed in this region. Trump’s withdrawal from such a treaty is a politically charged and baseless act - it has created space for his generalisations of the Mexican population as criminal drug lords to linger in US media, whilst the environmental push factors behind migration are completely pushed to the side.

Trump’s blatant refusal to accept the impact of climate change upon the region he scorns is self-defeating and ignores a root cause of migration’s build up. Furthermore, the cutting of foreign aid to Central America will, in the long run, contribute to worsening conditions for populations. This removes a safety net of provisions for things like drought mitigation and climate-resistant agricultural practices. Given the widely reported conditions of US immigration detention centres, it is difficult to imagine, beyond economic benefits, wider motives to leave for such a hostile welcome. Climate change has started and will only continue to push large numbers of the Central American population to Trump’s America. To reiterate an earlier argument, Trump would be well advised to cooperate internationally on matters of climate in order to stem his fears regarding domestic border security.

The EU was also exposed to the real effects of climate-driven migration during the 2015-16 crisis. In particular, the Sahel region, made near enough inhospitable by desertification and widespread drought, is a notable case study in climate migration. Citizens of affected countries, including Niger, Chad and Mali, were branded ineligible for the kind of protection that would be given if they were fleeing war, dictatorship or persecution. Given that 80% of the Sahel’s workforce is based in agriculture, according to the Executive Secretary of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, Monique Barbut, the extreme conditions precipitated by climate change do pose as serious a threat to this population as, say, the outbreak of civil war would. In response, the EU has established a $4.6 billion Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, aimed at addressing the root causes of displaced persons in Africa. Although this is promising, the scepticism of some EU member states, particularly those with hard-right governments like Orban’s Hungary, has raised concerns that the funds will be used to bolster border security at transit states in Northern Africa, Libya being a key example of this. As Trump’s border wall would, this traditional securitisation approach ultimately ignores a root cause of forced climate migration - land degradation - and compounds the suffering of those where government resources are drastically lacking. Put simply, an interminable quarantine will not solve the problem; resource sharing will.

Climate change should massively alter the way in which we label and classify migrants. As the danger posed by climate change becomes increasingly difficult for world leaders to ignore, it is now a realistic suggestion that the term “climate refugee” be incorporated into the discourse surrounding this important intersection. The UN Global Compact, currently the world’s largest corporate sustainability initiative, with over 13,000 participants and stakeholders over 170 countries, provides a “protection gap” for people forced from their homes due to environmental factors. However, such migrants are excluded from the current global asylum regime on the basis of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention which does not legislate for environmental factors, which were far less prevalent in the post-1945 era. This must be updated to match the current global security risk posed by irreversible climate change. Ultimately, the shortcomings and tardiness of international engagement on the matter of environmental degradation should not be burdened upon those forced to flee for a modicum of safety.

Future Thought Leaders is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of rising Energy & Sustainability writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem. This article was also published as part of the 20th Edition of KCL Dialogue.

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About the author

Michael Head is currently a tutor at Ark King Solomon Academy. He holds a bachelor's in History and International Relations from King's College London

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