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  • Eric Speer

The Destabilizing Future of Climate Refugees

While I have read a lot of stories about the UN climate summit taking place in New York this week, I have not seen any addressing what I think is going to be one of the most serious consequences of not taking action to reduce global emissions - climate refugees. There are already immense amounts of refugees that are seeking asylum around the globe that have destabilized the regions that they have arrived in. Refugees from the Syrian civil war prompted a nationalist backlash in several EU countries that either elected xenophobic leaders or propelled anti-refugee to parties to historic results in parliamentary elections. Countries in the Middle-East like Lebanon and Turkey that also took in huge numbers of refugees from Syria have also seen protests from their civilians increasing due to the strain on resources that come with increased amounts of stateless individuals seeking asylum. Then you have the Venezuelan refugee crisis that has seen Venezuela essentially be emptied of people as they flee to their neighboring countries, which has again prompted governments in border states to close their borders to Venezuelans with the notable exception of Colombia, which has gone above and beyond its duty to take in a responsible amount of Venezuelans. Even the perceived fear of waves of migrants entering the United States prompted a conservative backlash that has fundamentally changed the party from one that was generally pro-immigrant to one that has offered a full-throated endorsement of Donald Trump's calls to essentially wall off the country to refugees.

What concerns me is what will happen when the planet warms to the point where countries with huge populations that reside in the southern hemisphere become so hot that parts of the country become uninhabitable. This is already occurring in areas of the Indian subcontinent - home to well over a billion people. This is taking place while the Indian government and its neighbors are continuing to build coal fire plants en masse while the Chinese government subsidizes the building of coal plants throughout the developing world, which will greatly exacerbate the rate at which the planet is warming. This is unsustainable and will result in the exodus of huge numbers of people from South and Southeast Asia - a number staggeringly greater than any outflow of refugees that we have seen up to this point in time. These climate refugees will also have nowhere nearby that will be able to handle a large influx of foreigners seeking new homes, as northwest of the Indian subcontinent is the Middle-East, where many states are already barely functioning and cannot provide services to the people living there, and to the northeast is China, which is already home to over a billion people and generally unwelcoming of foreigners, particularly Indians due to geopolitical and historic tensions.

In addition to the planet warming, the changing climate will cause more intense floods forcing coastal communities to vacate and more intense droughts which will exacerbate tensions over access to fresh water. I am particularly concerned about this second point, as there are a number of future hotspots due to the geographical realities of which states have better access to fresh water than others. Israel will be able to shut off water access to the Palestinians, Ethiopia will clash with Egypt over Egypt's access to the Nile since it is downstream from the proposed Renaissance Dam, Turkey controls the flow of water in both the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to Syria and Iraq, etc. Access to fresh water is a fundamental resource for countries to flourish and as populations continue to increase while the finite amount of water and arable land decrease conflicts will arise and there will once again be a huge addition in the amount of stateless people seeking asylum in countries that can provide these resources.

I worry greatly that if we do not figure out some way to confront these climate challenges globally we will see an ever increasing number of conflicts over land and water, with a greater number of refugees wandering the globe in search of a home, who will either be callously ignored and left to suffer, or will be let in to countries that simply cannot sustain the social and political tensions that have come about as the result of the comparatively small refugee crisis that we are dealing with today.


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