Why climate change and migration are unavoidably linked

Across the world, two issues have everyone’s attention – immigration and climate change. It’s easy to think those two things are unconnected, but like so many issues of global inequality, they’re intimately linked.

Climate change is a growing cause of migration, with thousands forced to move every month by shrinking coastlines, catastrophic storms, and flooding or wildfires destroying their homes. Of the 50 countries in the world with the highest net emigration, almost half are in areas profoundly affected by intensifying tropical storms and cyclones, and more than three quarters have experienced severe flooding since 2009 Particularly for island nations like those in the Pacific and Caribbean, the effects of rising sea levels are immediate, and people’s homes are literally being consumed.

But identifying climate migration as direct displacement by flooding or catastrophic climate events only gives part of the picture. Although millions each year are forced to move by disaster or land loss, many more migrate to escape poverty, oppression, war or disease. What does that have to do with climate change?

Plenty, it turns out.

Poverty is directly tied to environmental damage. The cost of repair and relocation following climate disasters can run to tens of billions, and for smaller states where there’s nowhere to relocate to, recovery can cost several times more than their entire national income. Those costs can’t be mitigated or ignored, so impoverished countries often have to borrow billions at extortionate rates to pay for damages – money which then can’t be used for education, welfare or infrastructure. From droughts in Albania to flooding in Bangladesh, already-poor countries around the world are losing hundreds of billions of dollars to climate disasters.

As global temperatures rise and clean water becomes more and more inaccessible, the spread of disease is also worsened, exacerbated by flooding and famine. And with the creep of desertification and rising sea levels constantly shrinking the amount of usable land, natural resources become scarcer, forcing more and more reliance on exploitative foreign industry.

But climate change is not only contributing to global poverty, it’s also making extreme poverty far less survivable. For millennia, people have relied on subsistence farming to survive economic deprivation. But as salination and erosion kill crops in the Pacific and Caribbean and desertification and drought undermine farming in Africa and the Middle East, it becomes impossible for the world’s poorest to feed their families. Rural living, precarious at the best of times, has become untenable for many.

Those who flee to the cities are often faced with unemployment, lack of housing, and shortage of resources. And predatory corporations are quick to profit from scarcity, with speculation and aggressive price hikes raising the price of daily necessities even further out of reach.

This combination of poverty, overcrowding and competition over scarce resources creates a powder keg, ramping up pre-existing tensions. In Syria, prolonged drought was a major contributing factor to the explosion of civil war; in Ethiopia, urban expansion caused by rural famine contributed to the Oromo genocide; in Palestine, limited water supplies are leveraged by Israeli authorities to exert control in the West Bank. The increasing threat posed by climate change throws into stark relief the disparity between those with power and those without it.

In the global North, it’s easy to see climate catastrophe as a future threat. But for millions of people worldwide, the crisis arrived years ago, and they must leave home to survive it. The nations most affected by climate change, from the Horn of Africa to the Pacific Islands, aren’t the ones who caused this crisis, but they are paying the price. Meanwhile, the multinational corporations who are the main contributors to climate change are not only able to escape its effects with impunity, but to gain power and profit from the misery of those affected.

We have to understand climate change as a problem not just of land and resources but of conflict, power and exploitation.  We cannot claim to care about the victims of environmental destruction if we aren’t willing to make space for them to live safely. Equally, we can’t claim to care about the plight of migrants until we’re willing to address the systems of environmental and financial exploitation which take away people’s freedom to remain in their homes.

We in the global North can’t afford to sit and hope that someone else will fix it while we turn our backs on those escaping the effects of our excess. It can seem overwhelming, but we still have time to prevent this global crisis from getting worse if we enact radical change today.

Image credit: Takver//Flickr//CC-BY-2.0



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