Environmental refugees: The cost of ignoring climate change

Wildfires engulfed Turkey's southern coast, 30 July 30, 2021. [Getty]
7 min read
30 August, 2021
In-depth: The disastrous effects of climate change on people, especially in creating environmental refugees, are not a question of 'if' or 'when'. It's already happening.

Climate change has set the globe ablaze. For the first time in recorded history, smoke from forest fires in Siberia has reached the North Pole.

Fires have razed north Lebanon's large pine forests, killing at least one firefighter and forcing residents to flee as the flames have threatened houses.

In Algeria, fires have seen more than 69 civilians and 33 military personnel lose their lives, with the government denounced for its lack of support by the Algerian people.

"Wildfires have 'darkened the hearts of all'"

In the worst wildfires in decades, at least 10 people were killed in Turkey and tens of thousands evacuated as huge swathes of forests were destroyed along the southern coast.

Across Europe, meanwhile, devastating blazes in Greece and Italy have produced one of the largest firefighting operations the EU has ever seen.

Local residents battled massive blazes on Greece's second-largest island, Evia, for over a week straight. Thousands of people have been evacuated from Evia on a flotilla of small boats, with many elderly and frail people seeking refuge on ferries.

To the southeast, on the Peloponnese peninsula, at least 300 homes have been destroyed, with fires tearing through an untold number of businesses, farms, and forest land. 

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has apologised for government failings and praised the emergency services for their hard work, stating the wildfires had "darkened the hearts of all".

Firefighters and volunteers try to extinguish a fire in the village of Glatsona on Evia island, on 9 August, 2021. [Getty]
Firefighters and volunteers try to extinguish a fire in the village of Glatsona on Evia island, on 9 August 2021. [Getty]

Greek fire fighting forces have been overwhelmed by the severity of the blazes, prompting two dozen countries to send help - including Serbia, Croatia, Germany, Austria and Spain.

Paramedics and an array of volunteers, meanwhile, have been working endlessly all over Greece to aid those affected by the wildfires.

Volunteers at the scene have been questioning the impact of the viral photos and footage of the fires, asking: "Right now, everyone is here, you are all here getting these dramatic pictures… But in a year's time where will you be?" 

The cost of such destruction comes with a price: the growth of environmental refugees. Whether from the fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic or the battle with climate change, the global refugee crisis is about to get much worse.

Climate change: The facts

report published by the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) in 2017 highlighted the devastating impact that changing climate patterns will have on communities, and in particular developing countries. Nearly five years on, little has changed. 

In early August, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a study calling humanity's damaging impact on the climate a "statement of fact", and sounding a "code red for humanity".

The IPCC reports that it is "virtually certain" that heat extremes have been trending upwards since the 1950s, with global temperatures likely to rise by more than 1.5°C between 2030 - 2052.

"In particular, countries like Syria, Yemen, and Sudan will be affected, as 'economic and political instability has increased the demand for emergency water sources'"

Oxford University's Dr Friederike Otto, one of the authors of the IPCC report, predicts that the Earth will experience "even more intense and more frequent heatwaves… And we will also see an increase in heavy rainfall events on a global scale, and also increases in some types of droughts in some regions of the world".

UNICEF recently released a report for World Water Week, warning that children in MENA are threatened by water scarcity.

In particular, countries like Syria, Yemen, and Sudan will be affected, as "economic and political instability has increased the demand for emergency water sources including trucking, further exacerbating groundwater depletion".

Not only are external factors, such as conflict, hindering access to water, but climate change is changing the landscape of the land entirely, drying it out and creating water cycle instability. This, in turn, is increasingly becoming "a driver for conflicts and displacement".

Karim Elgendy, Associate Fellow at Chatham House, and Founder of Carboun, predicts that the key climate change issues facing MENA will be "increased temperatures… which will exceed the global average and will lead to more frequent and more intense heatwaves, reduced rainfall by up to 40% in Morocco and 25% in the Levant, increased variability in rainfall leading to extreme storms and weather events, and sea-level rise threatening the Nile Delta and the South of Iraq".

Cities, such as Aswan, Egypt, which is built along the Nile Delta, are threatened by sea-level rise caused by climate change. [Getty]
Cities, such as Aswan, Egypt, which is built along the Nile Delta, are threatened by sea-level rises caused by climate change. [Getty]

Mark Lynas, in his book, Our Final Warning: Six Degrees of Climate Emergency, predicts that "with no food, no water, and no cattle, people throughout sub-Saharan Africa will face famine on a scale not seen in the modern era".

Nnimmo Bassey, Nigerian architect and environmental activist, echoes Lynas, stating that "by 2025, only a handful of African countries will not be suffering from water scarcity or stress. This will have dire implications not only for crop farmers but also for pastoralists".

Reaching such catastrophic climates is not a matter of "if" or "when". It is already happening. In recent years, there have been record-breaking temperatures, furious wildfires, and devastating flooding which have displaced families, villages, and communities all around the world.

Several Arab states have, in recent years, experienced intense water cycles, which have caused powerful floods and droughts. From this, extreme weather events have occurred including dust storms, heatwaves, and, of course, wildfires.

"Reaching such catastrophic climates is not a matter of 'if' or 'when'. It is already happening"

Scientists predict that climate change will lead to increasing numbers of environmental refugees, "people who have been forcibly displaced as a result of environmental factors caused by climate change and natural disasters". 

Human influence on the environment affects the land, sky, and sea, causing detrimental consequences to communities. As such, rising sea levels and more wildfires could force more people to flee their homes, causing mass displacement and large numbers of environmental refugees. 

This could become a particularly acute problem in MENA, where tensions over resources are already simmering. Speaking to The New Arab, Karim Elgendy said that "climate change is expected to increase temperatures and reduced precipitation. This change is expected to increase migration due to loss of livelihoods from agriculture and tourism sectors".

Climate change mitigation

University of Southampton's Professor Stephen Hawkins commented on the IPCC report, stating that "the consequences will continue to get worse for every bit of warming". Furthermore, according to Hawkins, "for many of these consequences, there's no going back".

The report has cautioned that populations at risk of adverse consequences "include disadvantaged and vulnerable populations, some indigenous peoples, and local communities dependent on agricultural or coastal livelihoods (high confidence)".

It also expects there to be an increase of poverty "in some populations as global warming increases". 

"We can still avoid the worst consequences, but not if we continue like today, and not without treating the crisis like a crisis"

However, while the changes we are living through are unprecedented, many climate scientists and advocates argue that they can be mitigated. The IPCC recommends reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which, if done correctly and urgently, could lead to global temperature "stabilisation" within 20 - 30 years.

The Environmental Justice Foundation told The New Arab that "the international legal framework as it stands is not fit for the humanitarian challenge of climate refugees".

Therefore, the EJF emphasises that we are responsible for the future of our planet and must "urgently work together to protect climate refugees by 1) mitigating climate breakdown through rapid decarbonisation and nature conservation action; and 2) developing protections for those already affected by the global heating already 'baked' into our climate".

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Karim Elgendy forecasts that within the next two to three decades, we could see a number of outcomes unfold in different parts of the Middle East.

"The interaction between the physical impacts of climate change… and other socioeconomic and political factors could produce a number of different scenarios for the region. These scenarios include stagnation, fragmentation, securitisation, and cooperation."

Environmental activist Greta Thunberg has commented on the report, reiterating that the world must be "brave" in confronting the climate crisis and stating that "we can still avoid the worst consequences, but not if we continue like today, and not without treating the crisis like a crisis".  

Milica Cosic is a freelance political journalist and holds an MSc in International Relations. She specialises in the refugee crisis in Europe, particularly Eastern Europe. 

Follow her on Twitter: @milicac7