By Marco Iovino
In isolation from one another, there is considerable coverage about the respective effects of the refugee crisis and the changing climate on our immediate societies and the global community framing them. These effects share common features: they will reshape our future societies, different interest groups obfuscate a clear solution, and they require a significant increase in multilateral commitment to change. If global powers struggle to curb these issues individually, how could they possibly deal with them if these impacts intersect? Unfortunately, they already have.
Across the West, polls suggest that there is concern about the Syrian refugee crisis and climate change. Parties have politicized the issue of refugees without offering up tangible plans to address the root cause—the right uses anxiety as a reason to decline immigrants and the left uses tolerance and integration as its platform. With climate change, the public is concerned but it lacks the same sense of immediacy. It would appear that in popular perception, these two are not combined. However, across the Middle East and Africa, people are being both internally displaced and forced to migrate to neighboring countries and Europe for their livelihood. There are long routes from places as far reaching as Cameroon and Somalia, that move refugees north across the Mediterranean in a crisis completely detached from the Syrian civil war.
This phenomenon is likely to get a lot worse in the future as the issues of climate change and displacement become increasingly intertwined. The University of Oxford’s Refugee Studies Centre (RSC) estimates that by 2050, anywhere between 50 million and 200 million people could be forcibly displaced due to climate change. This displacement would mostly be concentrated on people migrating to developed nations, and would thereby displace people to a far greater extent than the ongoing crisis of the Syrian civil war, which has forced 5.1 million Syrians to flee as of 2017.
Sub-Saharan nations rely economically on agriculture. Approximately 65 percent of those that live there rely on subsistence farming, which means that they do not harvest a surplus to sell but instead use all their produce as a means to survive. Losing the farmable land and the environmental standards needed to grow this food, as RSC details, not only displaces people from their homes but also increases the likelihood of conflict over the limited resources that remain.
While global leaders may not be convinced by traditional messages and images used to spur action—the melting ice caps and polar bears, the loss of biodiversity, and abstract distant issues like smog in Delhi and Beijing—the issues that they and their citizens are concerned about have some of their roots in the changing climate.
Several aspects need to be addressed: 1) the UNHCR, or an alternative organization, needs to coordinate efforts to deal with this type of displacement; 2) aid needs to be provided to restructure agricultural practices in sub-Saharan Africa; and 3) a multinational cohesive addressal of climate change.
These issues have had widespread mainstream media coverage as early as 2015, but have largely sidelined by the Syrian refugee crisis. Since it may not appear to affect the U.S. and other major non-European powers, there is a reluctance to address the issue multilaterally. That being said, a multinational body such as the UNHCR needs to take a more coordinated method in understanding and preempting these flows of people. Whereas the Syrian conflict might have been an unexpected result of the Arab Spring, forecasts should be a lot more accurate for the change of climate in short and medium terms. This should enhance the possibilities of both coordinated responses and preemptive measures.
Agricultural techniques currently in use in sub-Saharan Africa do not efficiently use the available, if scarce, resources. Moreover, many of the crops grown are typically not indigenous to the area and are instead grown to fit international demands. These ‘cash crops’ are not necessarily well-suited to the soil and the increasing desertification. In the 1990s, the U.S. National Research Council (NRC) published a series of highly detailed books on the potential of Africa’s “lost crops” (broken down into volumes dedicated to grains, vegetables, and fruits). These books suggest that farmers can return to fruits, vegetables and grains that are indigenous to the region and better suited to the climate. However, this would require at least partial support from the international community to diversify the kinds of food that it would be willing to import from Africa.
Cohesion in Addressing Climate Change
Italy has attempted to gather support from other European Union members, but has had very little reception. There have been talks including by German Chancellor Angela Merkel on efforts to address displacement within Africa from conflict. Even if Europe creates a cohesive plan to deal with this issue, it still faces the issue of those who are displaced because of climate change—something it cannot control or repair on its own. While this may be considered a Euro-African issue, the responsibility for the planet’s warming is globally universal. Other countries can choose not to address this issue, but forecasts demonstrate that every continent on Earth will exhibit the phenomenon that is already occurring in sub-Saharan Africa. It may happen sooner than we think.
These three categories demonstrate how interdependent the phenomena of climate change and the displacement of people are. One cannot truly be addressed in vacuum from another. Certain nations and societies may prioritize climate change or displaced peoples, depending on their location and their societal attitudes. To realize that both must be addressed will hopefully bring a wider variety of leadership to the table, a silver lining on an otherwise very bleak situation.
Marco Iovino is an Executive Office Intern at the EastWest Institute in New York. He is currently in the middle of completing his bachelor’s degree at Pomona College in California but he calls London his home and tries to go back often. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.