Climate refugees: latest IPCC report confirms worst fears

Issue 
To prevent a humanitarian catastrophe from climate change, radical action is needed on a global level. Image: Ria Sopala at Pixabay

The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report has found that unless there are immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, limiting warming to close to 1.5°C or even 2°C will not be possible.

This is a “climate code red” for humanity and the planet.

Even now, the impacts of climate change are evident in “natural” disasters, such as the catastrophic heat waves, floods and fires in the northern hemisphere.

Without radical reductions in GHG emissions, the human cost from 1.5°C or even 2°C warming are unimaginable; it will lead to unprecedented numbers of people having to relocate — internally and across borders — to escape its devastating impacts.

Memet Uludag, national coordinator of United Against Racism in Ireland and a member of the Global Ecosocialist Network (GEN), told a recent GEN online forum that climate change is already threatening agriculture and food security and, as a consequence, displacing millions of people.

Displacement

“Climate change and displacement is not just an academic conversation: it is not a projection into the future. It is real; it is happening today."

In Uludag’s former home, in a predominantly farming region in south-eastern Turkey, the midday temperature rose to 51°C in July.

“The only response, the only warning from official circles and the mainstream media was to advise people to stay indoors,” he said.

“But how are the farmers going to sustain themselves? How are the workers going to stay indoors? How is life going to continue under such circumstances?”

In Turkey, Uludag said, an estimated 300,000 farming families “cannot farm anymore and [will] be displaced”. These farmers will “end up in big urban centres, as precarious workers, or indeed unemployed”. Poverty will become the reality for these people.

The IPCC’s regional data report shows that in Europe, the frequency and intensity of “hot extremes”, including marine heat waves, are projected to keep rising, regardless of whether greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise.

Less rain is also projected in summer in the Mediterranean, extending to northward regions. While, in winter, precipitation (snow, rain) will rise.

There has already been an observed increase in drought, according to the IPCC, and the projection is for an increase in “aridity and fire weather conditions” if warming reaches 2°C and above.

Moreover, the IPCC projects that these impacts will combine by mid century and, at 2°C warming and above, Europe will exceed “critical thresholds relevant for ecosystems and humans”.

This will lead to populations being displaced and more humanitarian disasters.

“Only a couple of years ago, we were horrified at the rising global refugee numbers, which had doubled from nearly 30 million in the [early] 2000s to 60‒65 million by the late 2000s,” Uludag said. “But today … refugee numbers globally have risen to more than 82 million people.”

Governments are only too aware of the crisis and the likelihood things will get worse due to climate change.

This has driven the rich and powerful countries of the West to introduce harsh policies to deter and prevent refugees from crossing borders.

Barbarism

“From Australia … to Europe and the United States, the refugee crisis of the past decade … has exposed the horrific border policies of powerful nations — or the barbarism, as some of us call it,” Uludag said.

He described barbarism like this: “The increased militarisation of borders, and indeed human rights violations, where poor, suffering people, who endured horrific journeys are then pushed back at sea, or sent back to the hands of terrible regimes.”

This, he said, has led to a new wave of racist reaction across Europe, North America and other regions and has fuelled “Trumpism”.

“[There have been] thousands of deaths in the hands of powerful European, Western and Eastern leaders — in front of their eyes, thousands of people have died. The Mediterranean has turned into a human graveyard.”

To prevent such a humanitarian catastrophe, Uludag said radical action is needed on a global level. Climate change isn’t just about the rich nations, in Europe, or in Australia “but what is happening to some of the most vulnerable people”.

“The UN Refugee Convention (1951) and the amendment in 1967 (the Protocol) talks about refugees, talks about the definition of refugees or displacement, but excludes economic migrants and climate and environmental-related displacement from any sort of framework,” he said.

“There is no definition. There is not even the most basic framework in terms of protection of climate-related displacement and climate refugees.”

This is despite climate-driven disasters, such prolonged drought in Africa, having contributed to starvation for decades.

“In 1983 and '85, the famine in Ethiopia [displaced] 2.5 million people. In Uganda and Somalia, and other African countries, drought and related problems have again caused the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people.

“In East Africa, 23 million people were at risk and are still at risk due to climate [change]. 900,000 refugees from Somalia have fled to neighbouring countries, like Kenya and Ethiopia…

“In 2011, the UN refugee base in Kenya hosted 400,000 people in camps, where capacity was only 90,000. Many of these people have been affected by climate change-related political circumstances, by famine, by drought and the reality of living becoming impossible in these parts of the world.”

“This has been coming for a time under the watchful eyes of governments and states.”

The rich and powerful nations have been paying lip service to dealing with climate change, he said, stalling on serious action, greenwashing or — at the extreme end — denying climate change is real.  Behind their governments stand the powerful fossil fuel capitalists and the big polluters.

Fossil fuel capitalism

“For a long time now, the governments of the world — unless you are a lunatic like Trump or Bolsonaro — admit and recognise and talk about climate change," Uludag said.

“But now the policies have been replaced with total avoidance and ignorance: talk about it, but do nothing about it and maybe pass laws and have summits as we’ll see [at the COP26 summit] later in the year.

“The British government, for example, declared a climate emergency in 2019. The Irish government — where I am — followed suit and we celebrated becoming the second country in the world [to do so].

“But, when it came to real actions affecting people’s real lives, such as climate emergency bills proposed by socialists — in this case, for example, People Before Profit TD [member of the Irish parliament] Brid Smith’s [2019] climate bill — the government simply refused to act on it [and effectively blocked it], because they are looking after the interests of the polluting industries and the powerful.”

Even the world's most powerful militaries are talking about climate refugees and climate change-related displacement.

Major General Munir Muniruzzaman, head of the Global Military Advisory Council on Climate Change, announced in 2016 that climate change was “the greatest security threat of the 21st century”.

Brigadier General Stephen Cheney, a member of the US Department of State’s foreign affairs policy board and CEO of the American Security Project, also said in 2016: “Climate change could lead to a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions”.

“But the conclusion of these same powerful forces,” Uludag said, “is not to tackle the root cause and consequences, but immediately talk about militarising the borders and working with their European partners to protect European states and countries from the influx of the refugees and migrants.”

The World Bank is estimating that in two decade’s time there may be up to 250 million people displaced by climate change. The flow-on effects — as the first wave of internal displacement causes economic hardship, poverty and conflicts and in turn leads to a second wave of displacement across borders — will be “horrific”.

The solution?

People “within those very well protected borders, barbarically protected borders, and those people who are outside of these borders” are facing “the same enemy”.

“We need to work together, fight together, unite together,” said Uludag.

“We need to link our struggles against the establishment’s systematic attacks and the across-the-globe effects of climate change, [including] climate refugees and climate related displacement.”

“I don’t believe this is a doom-and-gloom scenario. There is huge hope globally as people are fighting back. Sometimes the campaigns are slow, sometimes they are very energetic. There is a broader and more widespread understanding of the global issues.”

Uludag said that solidarity with the Global South needs to become more tangible.

“It’s not [about] charity … it’s about working with people of the Global South. A just transition and workers’ rights are part of it, not just in one part of the world, but everywhere.

“The international trade union movement will have to be part of that fightback, because only through that international struggle will we be able to resist and push back and prevent some of the consequences [of climate change for workers]."