According to the World Health Organization, climate change is the single greatest problem facing humanity today. While it is not generally considered a conflict, it certainly has the potential to lead to global conflict and instances of violence. One of the largest impacts of the climate crisis will be the displacement of people from their homelands, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, yet it is an issue that is rarely addressed. Although the future is uncertain, the World Bank predicts that 143 million people will be displaced by 2050. It is already clear that human migration is one of the leading drivers of conflict and violence, as shown by immigration crises from Tunisia to the US-Mexico border. In order to prevent the onslaught of conflict that will be brought on by climate migration, the climate crisis must be addressed now, before it is too late. Millions of people will lose their homes, resources like food and water will become even more scarce than they already are, and the possibility of large-scale violence is not to be underestimated.
There have been countless attempts at mitigating the climate crisis since the 1980s, with varying degrees of success. Most recently, the Paris Agreement has utilized a bottom-up approach to the issue, introducing nationally determined contributions, where countries decide their own responses to the crisis. The Paris Agreement has the goal of preventing average global temperatures from rising more than 2 °C above preindustrial levels and achieving global carbon neutrality. The countries met once again in 2021 to discuss and modify the agreement, but it still follows the same basic structure.
One of the main reasons that the climate crisis persists without sufficient global response is that the countries that contribute the most to global warming, mostly developed countries, are not the ones that face the brunt of the impact. Countries like the United States have some of the worst emissions, but have the wealth and geography to be less affected by climate change. Other, poorer countries, are faced with the consequences of a problem that they barely contributed to. Thus, there is very little incentive for the countries that can make the biggest difference in global emissions to cooperate.
Furthermore, it is nearly impossible to enforce climate action, as the UN has no authority to do so. Agreements such as the Paris Agreement have limited efficacy since the countries determine their own climate response and are not accountable for following through with the plan. For example, under President Trump, the United States pulled out of the Paris Agreement. If a country does not see climate action as being in its best interest, it simply will not do it. It is not enough to appeal to the collective well-being of the human race, as the past few decades have shown. It seems like the only way to ensure action against climate change is if it aligns with the country’s short-term economic and geopolitical aims. Once climate change reaches that level of urgency for the world’s top-emitting countries, it will be too late.
Immigration is already causing conflict around the world, as there is no ‘perfect’ system for refugees to be peacefully taken in by other countries. Violence in Tunisia is just the most recent example of this broken system, but there are countless others. Currently, immigration and climate change are viewed as completely separate issues, but they are interconnected. Increasingly, people are being forced to leave their homes because of natural disasters and scarce resources. As the planet warms, there will be less fresh water, and it will be harder to grow food in certain regions. Not only is the global immigration crisis not currently being addressed, but the climate aspect is also being entirely ignored. A global framework for caring for refugees and migrants is crucial, especially as climate displacement becomes increasingly common.
As countries will only take action against climate change when it directly benefits them, and because immigration is causing conflict across the globe, illustrating the connection between the two is crucial for motivating climate action. If countries want to avoid the influx of refugees and the tumult caused by mass migration, they need to take strong action against climate change now. The United States may not be directly harmed by climate change in the near future, but they will feel the effects of mass migration from the Caribbean islands on its borders.
This is not to say that immigration is inherently bad for countries, or that immigrants are the enemy. However, because of the global sentiment against immigration and the violence that refugee crises have caused over the past few decades, it is clear that most countries want to avoid a future where mass human migration is the norm. The current refugee and migration management structure in place is not sufficient to handle the influx of people displaced by climate change, and if nothing is done to stop it, climate migration will cause much conflict and many deaths. Focusing on climate migration as a real and immediate effect of climate change on developed countries may be the key to motivating meaningful action.
Ioane Teitiota set an important precedent in establishing non-refoulement for climate refugees and confirming that climate change may soon make currently inhabited regions unfit for human life. In his case to the UN, he claimed that New Zealand violated his right to life by sending him back to Kiribati. Although the UN ultimately decided that the conditions were not yet bad enough to warrant such a claim, they acknowledged that it might shortly be the reality. The idea of ‘climate refugees’ is not an abstract for the far off future, it is our current reality; people are already dying and being forced out of their homes because of global warming. Focusing the conversation on climate displacement is crucial in demonstrating the immediacy of the threat of climate change to the countries who need to hear it the most.
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