On Sunday, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its latest report, reiterating, for those who haven’t yet noticed, that we are on the brink of epochal changes driven by climate change, and that we must act now to avoid the worst impacts.
The IPCC report is a welcome distraction from the recent hysterical series of immigration-related news headlines. However, the reality is that both climate change and immigration are inextricably linked.
The truth is that if you are worried about migration then you ought to be terrified of what is happening to the global climate. In addition to increasing the devastation caused by extreme weather events including storms, floods, droughts and fires, climate change will affect water supplies, crops and livestock, ultimately affecting food security. For many, the only solution is to move.
Pentagon and NATO military analysts identify climate change as a "threat multiplier" that increases the chances of conflict and will result in large-scale migration. Just how many climate refugees will be banging on the doors of Europe and the United States is difficult to calculate although estimates range from 25 million to 1 billion by 2050.
What’s clear is that the numbers will dwarf current immigration levels - the UK Conservative Party’s election pledge was to limit the issue of new national security numbers (and that’s to legal immigrants) to 100,000 per year.
So what will happen as agricultural ecosystems across Asia, Africa and Latin America are slowly squeezed, hunger fuels conflict and migration numbers gradually swell by more than ten times, or indeed a hundred times?
Voters in Europe and the US already see immigration as a concern. Our politicians, fearful of upsetting some constituents, appear content to jump on the xenophobic band-wagon driven by the likes of Ukip. But no one is talking about climate refugees. Politicians seem unable to join the dots because they have not fully grasped the implication of climate change for migration and for a raft of other policies.
Ironically in Britain Ukip spreads fear of immigration and yet opposes renewable energy - the biggest weapon needed to fight climate change. But they have succeeded in bringing right-wing populism into Parliament.
Economics and conflict are key drivers for migration - both are made worse by climate change. For many people, life is so hopeless that they are prepared to give up what little they possess to seek a new start for themselves and their families. So far this year, more than 180,000 have made their way to Italy, risking death in epic journeys through Africa and then onward across the Mediterranean on decrepit boats. Others climb walls to enter the Spanish African cities of Ceuta and Melilla; some are camped near Calais as they attempt to get to the UK by any means possible. Across the Atlantic, refugees from the south continue to penetrate the porous US border.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. Unless urgent action is taken now our world is heading for a global average temperature increase over pre-industrial level of up to 4 or 5 degrees centigrade. As climate change bites even harder, the tide of refugees will swell inexorably as heat waves and droughts, sea level rise and food shortages get worse. This will drive more and worse conflict and fragile economies will collapse under the weight of having to cope with more severe weather events.
By 2050, when our kids will be running countries, today’s knee-jerk reactions to annual immigration statistics will resemble the focus on brass-polishing on the doomed Titanic.
The only solution is to help communities to stay where they are: if we want to stop the hundreds of millions who basically have no choice but to move north (70 per cent of natural disasters occur in Asia, the Pacific, Africa and the Middle East, where many of the world’s most vulnerable populations live), we need to help them cope.
We need to invest ten times more money worldwide, in clean decentralised energy systems, in adaptable or climate-smart agriculture, and in resilient infrastructure and in education. The money’s there: we subsidize fossil fuels with $2tn a year, but according to the International Energy Agency, we don’t need more than half that amount to act now and finance a transition to green growth and green lifestyles.
There is no alternative unless Europeans and Americans want to welcome potentially hundreds of millions of climate refugees to a home near them.
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