Climate change has been held responsible many of the social and economic woes affecting mainly the poorest in the global South and now many are seeing it as one of the root causes of refugee crises.
In his State of the Union speech here Sep. 9 to the European Parliament, even European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker said that an “ambitious, robust and binding“ climate treaty is needed to prevent another refugee crisis.
Climate change is one the root causes of a new migration phenomenon,” said Juncker. “Climate refugees will become a new challenge – if we do not act swiftly.”
Calling on the European Union and its international partners to be more ambitious about climate protection, Juncker warned that “the EU will not sign just any deal” at the United Nations climate change conference (COP21), scheduled to be held in Paris in December.
The COP21 meeting is expected to come up with a climate treaty with the aim of keeping global warming below 2°C.
Climate change marked by longer-lasting droughts, more violent storms and rising sea levels is worsening the living conditions of hundreds of millions. Particularly in the poorest countries, climate change has the effect of forcing people who are unable to adapt to leave their homes.
In the Sahelian countries, Bangladesh and in the South Pacific people have already had to flee because of climate impacts.
According to Jan Kowalzig from Oxfam, “climate change is already causing a lot of damage in the global South. It could ruin all progress which has been made in the fight against global poverty over the last decades.”
However, it is the relationship between climate change and the refugee phenomenon that is attracting the attention of many experts.
Earlier this year, a study by a research team from Columbia University and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) held global warming partly responsible for the civil war in Syria.
The study noted that between 2006 and 2010, Syria faced the “worst drought in the instrumental record”, leading to crop failures and mass migration within the country. According to climate models, this drought would have been highly improbable without climate change.
“For Syria, a country marked by poor governance and unsustainable agricultural and environmental policies, the drought had a catalytic effect, contributing to political unrest,” the study concluded.
The number of refugees entering Europe this year is the highest on record and Syrians are by far the largest group – an estimated nine million Syrians have left their homes so far.
Besides the Syrian crisis, the United Nations warns that, worldwide, climate change could increase the number of refugees dramatically.
Srgjan Kerim, president of the United Nations General Assembly, has estimated that global warming could cause up to 200 million refugees until 2050. “Tomorrow we will have climate refugees and we have to know that,” Juncker told the European Parliament.
Oxfam’s Kowalzig explains what needs to be included in a climate treaty to mitigate a potential refugee crisis: “Climate change expels people from their homes and this is where a potential climate treaty in Paris comes in: first, we need to cut emissions and keep global warming below two degrees; secondly, people in poor countries need support to adapt to climate change; and thirdly, a climate treaty in Paris has to lay down rules for damages and losses caused by global warming where adaption is not possible.”
In his speech in Strasbourg, Juncker also admitted that the European Union “is probably not doing enough” to tackle climate change. The EU has announced greenhouse gas emission cuts of 40 percent by 2030 as part of its ‘Intended Nationally Determined Contribution’ (INDC).
INDCs are the commitments every country is supposed to announce before the climate conference in Paris.
However, because a treaty in Paris based on the INDCs will not be enough to keep global warming below 2oC, many organisations and countries from the global South are demanding a five-yearly “review and improve” process to make climate commitments more ambitious over time.
Any agreement reached in Paris should at least offer a perspective for effective climate protection and this depends heavily on the process of creating a regular built-in review that would enable countries to improve that agreement.
Last week, formal negotiations ahead of COP21 in Paris were held, but while there was support for long-term goals, short-term commitments seemed to be far less popular.
An agreement in Paris with short-term commitments and five-year cycles without a concrete long-term goal might not be perfect. It would lack a perspective beyond 2030, but it would enhance climate protection and greenhouse gas reduction in the next 15 years.
On the other hand, an agreement with an ambitious long-term goal but no effective short-term measures would allow countries to fall far behind with their greenhouse gas reductions and many would just not be able to catch up after 2030.
This article was first published on IPS and edited by Phil Harris.