The Malta Independent 20 January 2022, Thursday

FIRST: Not just warming... The impact of climate change on immigration

First Magazine Monday, 19 June 2017, 10:00 Last update: about 6 years ago

Words by Julian Cardona, paintings by Gulja Holland

At one point, when Leonardo DiCaprio was interviewing the then US President Barack Obama for the critically acclaimed climate change documentary Before the Flood, he asked what terrified him the most. Mr Obama did not hesitate: "A huge portion of the world's population lives near oceans. If they start moving, then you start seeing scarce resources the subject of competition between populations. This is the reason why the Pentagon has said that this is not just an environmental issue, but also a national security issue."

Other military leaders have confirmed this. "Climate change is the greatest security threat of the 21st century," said Maj. Gen. Munir Muniruzzaman, chairman of the Global Military Advisory Council on Climate Change and former military adviser to the President of Bangladesh. »

«It takes only a one metre rise in sea level rise to flood 20 per cent of Bangladesh, he said. "We're going to see refugee problems on an unimaginable scale, potentially above 30 million people."

According to the EU Migration Policy Institute report, the migration that will result from climate change will dwarf anything we have seen before. Numbers between 100 to 200 million displaced people have been thrown into the discussion and, whilst these figures are subject to debate, there is no doubt that the consequences will be catastrophic. The major catalysts are a rise in temperatures, disruption in water cycles, severe storms, risers in sea level and droughts, with the added tension resulting in heightened ethnic conflicts and regional wars.

Trying to understand how the disasters described above unfold is a truly scary ride. Starting with a rise in sea level, a rise of one metre in this century is considered conservative by most scientists. Now contemplate this: 16 out of the 22 largest cities are seaports! When it comes to rising temperatures, an increase of only one or two degrees will seriously reduce crop production in the most poverty-stricken regions of the world.

To make matters worse, diseases such as cholera and malaria thrive in warmer water and one can only imagine the impact on migration, should the threat of infected water materialise. And what about storms? When talking about mega-storms that dwarf anything to which we are accustomed, the immigration impact is, of course, due to the exponential increase in damage to the infrastructure that will leave hundreds of communities and millions of people without homes.

Some areas will be more affected than others. Emerging economies such as those in Asia and Africa will be the most vulnerable to climate change, with India and Bangladesh being cited more than other countries. This is because when the effects of climate change are coupled with factors such as poverty and population density, the conclusions are even grimmer. Other examples of vulnerable countries are Haiti, Madagascar and the Philippines. Norway was ranked the least vulnerable. This raises the following question: is it possible to predict migration flows?

According to the report, "It is fairly easy to predict that the direction of migration flows resulting from climate change will be influenced by proximity, historical (often colonial) ties, and ethnic or linguistic affinity." Climate-influenced migration from the Middle East and North Africa will likely move towards the closest European lands across the Mediterranean. Emigration from Mexico, the Caribbean and Central America is more likely to move towards the USA and Canada. Countries that still have migratory colonial agreements, such as Montserrat (UK territory) and Martinique (France), will be allowed to resettle in their former colonial territories. Heavily populated Asian cities will find it more problematic, according to the report. "Adjacent countries are themselves poor and densely populated." The likelihood is that migration happens at a rural-to-urban level. 

Now we can stop and understand what Donald Trump's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement means for the world. Firstly, we must take a moment to understand the breakthrough obtained by the Paris Agreement. The 2015 accord is widely believed to be the world's best chance of tackling catastrophic temperature change. Nearly 200 nations agreed to reduce their emissions and limit global temperature rise to "well below" two degrees Celsius by the end of the century. In withdrawing, America will become one of only three countries that do not support the accord: war-torn Syria and Nicaragua - the latter because it does not believe that the terms of the Agreement are sufficiently ambitious!

In a recent letter, 22 Republicans urged Trump to exit the Agreement, which required states to reduce the carbon emissions from power plants - something that many fossil-fuel-loving Republicans oppose. The fear that Trump's plan will drive up global CO² levels at a very dangerous rate is not unfounded. One also has to consider that even, if the US had adhered to the Paris Agreement, the Americans were still expected to exceed the limits imposed by it. One can only imagine what the outcome will be now.

However, all is not doom and gloom. At a recent summit in Italy, the G7 leaders reaffirmed their commitments to the Agreement and the world economy is pushing towards renewable energy apace. Solar and wind power are now either the same price or cheaper than new fossil fuel generation in more than 30 countries, says a report from the World Economic Forum. Public opinion also supports action to tackle emissions. The world also has a new 'leader' in the field: China. Not only has the Chinese government fully backed the Paris Agreement, but it is eyeing an opportunity to extend its soft power. A Chinese energy company even wants to re-train American miners as windfarm technicians.

Whichever way the story unfolds, we must remember that humanity has to pay its dues to nature. "Countries are going to pay for climate change, one way or another," said former American Vice-President Dick Cheney. "The best way to pay for it is by tackling the root causes of climate change and cutting greenhouse gas emissions. If we do not, the national security impacts will be increasingly costly and challenging."

One man's perilous decision will not stop the millions of people of goodwill, who are pooling all their intelligence and resources to stop the single greatest threat of our generation. Let us just hope that, for the love we have for our children, this saga ends like a good Hollywood movie: with the triumph of those who are on the right side of history.


The images illustrating this article are oil paintings from a collection titled From a Distance by artist Ġulja Holland depicting environmental issues. They are on display at Lily Agius Gallery until the 24th of June.

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