I’ve been interested in the way the migrant crisis is being debated in politics and the media. It’s that word – crisis – that is particularly striking. It suggests that what we’re seeing across Europe is an aberration, a temporary disaster to be “solved” by politicians. Even the sight of ramshackle tents in Calais suggests a phenomenon that could be cleared away at any given moment.
In The Concept of the Political, the philosopher Carl Schmitt argued that, when presented with crisis, liberal democracies will put aside constitutional niceties in order to survive. The public consents to its government violating liberal values because crisis is a state of exception, which requires desperate measures.
Perhaps that explains why there has been so little uproar over supposedly civilised societies using terminology like “marauding” and “swarms”, and making policy decisions that result in hundreds of people drowning in the Mediterranean or languishing in detention centres. These things, we think, don’t reflect who we are as people. They are just necessary responses to this current crisis.
Climate change can displace 200 million people by 2050
There is only one problem with calling this phenomenon of migration a crisis, and that is that it’s not temporary: it’s permanent. Thanks to global climate change, mass migration could be the new normal.
There are lots of estimates as to what we can expect to see in the near future, but the best known (and controversial) figure comes from Professor Norman Myers, who argues that climate change could cause 200 million people to be displaced by 2050.
In fact, it’s already happening. According to the Pentagon, climate change is a “threat multiplier” and does appear to be increasing risk of conflict.
Human driven drought of Syria added to stessors for conflict
Indeed a new study released in March suggests this is exactly what happened in Syria, after a severe drought in 2006. As the study’s co-author, Professor Richard Seager, explains, “We’re not saying drought caused the [Syrian conflict]. We’re saying that added to all the other stressors, it helped kick things over the threshold into open conflict. And a drought of that severity was made much more likely by the ongoing human-driven drying of that region.”
Syria now has the highest number of refugees in the world. A new government-commissioned report on the looming climate-induced food shortage suggests that “the rise of Isis may owe much to the food crises that spawned the Arab spring”.
Food crisis spawned Arab spring and rise of Isis
In his book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Jared Diamond points out that the most environmentally stressed places in the world are the most likely to have conflicts, which then generate refugees. Rapid climate change will environmentally stress lots of developing countries.
But it’s not just conflicts exacerbated by climate that will create refugees: climate change, in and of itself, is likely to cause mass migration. As Simon Lewis, professor of global change science at University College London puts it: “Climate and vegetation zones are shifting, so the Mediterranean will likely keep getting drier this century, with knock-on negative social and economic impacts. That will be tough for Spain, Italy and Greece, where significant numbers of people may move north, and of course, displaced people from elsewhere wouldn’t stay in the Mediterranean, they’d keep travelling north.”
In other words, the Mediterranean countries currently trying to cope with migrants from other parts of the world may eventually have a migrant crisis of their own. One day there could conceivably be Italians and Greeks in camps in Calais, as their own countries become even hotter and more arid.
How to deal with an altered world?
In a 2014 paper, Migration as Adaptation, Kayly Ober suggests migration is a good way of dealing with the imminent effects of climate change. She argues that the international community’s thoughts should “turn from not only stemming greenhouse gas emissions, but also how to deal with an already altered world”.
The idea of millions of migrants being assisted to move to western Europe might scandalise the Daily Mail, but it shouldn’t – because migration might be a form of adaptation many Britons may also have to consider. According to the Environment Agency, 7,000 British properties may be lost to rising sea levels over the next century. These people too will need to be relocated.
So what do we do about climate migration? The first step is to change our perceptions. We need to process the fact that migration isn’t going to go away or be “solved”. In all likelihood, it will become more common; a new normal.
Now will governments respond with radical action?
The second step is obvious – we must all be more active in pushing governments to take more decisive action to reduce global greenhouse emissions, so that more people can remain safely in their homes and communities. For its part, Britain must adhere to international commitments to reduce emissions in line with keeping warming below dangerous levels (in other words 2C above pre-industrial levels) as well as providing adequate funds for adaptation. Britain must also push for a strong equitable global deal in the Paris climate talks in December, seen by many as the “last chance” to avert catastrophic climate change.
And finally, we need to urgently address the current strategies western governments are using to deal with migration, and the almost rabid commentary that often accompanies those strategies. There is a strong case for Britain to take a substantial number of climate refugees: as the first country to industrialise, we need to take historical responsibility for climate change, and should take into account our historical carbon emissions and their effects when responding to mass climate migration.
The migration we are witnessing is not a state of exception: it is the beginning of a new paradigm – and how we choose to respond to it reflects on who we fundamentally are as a society. We must deal with the victims of this permanent crisis in a compassionate way, not just for their humanity but for our own.
By Ellie Mae O’Hagan. Source: The Guardian