The Syrian Refugee Crisis was climate migration writ small. Based on the literature, I attribute about 10% of the causation of the Syrian Civil War to climate change. It exacerbated the regional drought that made both grazing and small-hold agriculture economically challenging, leading to large numbers of young men migrating to the cities where they were underemployed and ripe for radicalization and revolt. There was a collection of causes, and climate change was one of them. For context, here’s one of the pieces of literature I frequently cite: Climate change in the Fertile Crescent and implications of the recent Syrian drought
“We conclude that human influences on the climate system are implicated in the current Syrian conflict.”
And Europe’s response to the Syrian Refugee Crisis provides insights. Lots of right-wing xenophobic rhetoric. Lots of scared white people worried about the teaming hordes of non-white people coming to Europe (despite the large numbers of non-white people living and contributing peacefully in Europe already). Lots of white nationalism. Lots of Islamaphobia.
Lots of border fences and lots of borders closed to refugees.
And a serious bright spot: Germany. Under Merkel, the country opened its arms to a million refugees, a huge percentage of the problem. Sadly, that silver cloud came with a black lining, political opportunism by Merkel’s rivals for leadership.
Merkel’s decline in influence and scheduled departure at the end of 2021 was caused in large part by the acceptance of refugees. That’s a lesson that many across Europe and North America (at least) are paying attention to, unfortunately.
To be clear, Germany’s response in accepting refugees was completely correct under every moral, ethical and rational framework of any merit, and many other European countries’ responses were ethically bankrupt. But no good deed goes unpunished.
And also to add nuance, Merkel was excellent but flawed. Her economic ideology of austerity was harmful to the EU and many of its member states. That part of her leadership I won’t miss, and hope that her replacement has accepted the lessons of the Great Recession and won’t repeat her mistakes in the next recession.
The Syrian Refugee Crisis still continues, with almost 7 million Syrians having fled the country, and another almost 7 million displaced within it. 14 million displaced people rocked political power structures in Europe and North America. Donald Trump leveraged the xenophobic traits of many conservative Americans in his rise to power in 2016 to disastrous results for the US, as one obvious example.
The most commonly cited number for people who will be displaced by climate change by 2050 is 200 million, with estimates ranging up to a billion displaced people. 200 Million.
14 times the scale of the Syrian Refugee Crisis that transfixed the world for years, and continues to this day.
Who does not remember Alan Kurdi, even if they do not remember his name? The 3-year-old drowned with his mother and brother in the Mediterranean Sea as they tried desperately to reach Europe. His body washed up on the beach near Bodrum, Turkey after the tiny rubber raft, overloaded with desperate refugees, capsized minutes after departing the Turkish coast.
There were dozens or hundreds of Alan Kurdis who died in the Mediterranean, among the thousands of Syrian refugees who drowned. In a few decades, it will be millions dead and tens of millions fleeing countries destabilized by climate change.
The answer, of course, lies in stopping climate change and assisting countries lacking in resilience to build local resilience and clean economies. That’s what the Paris Agreement aims to do.
The shortsighted answer of closing borders to refugees and pretending climate change does not exist, or won’t impact those of us living in North America or Europe, is tragically unethical and intellectually inept, traits which seem to cluster on the right at present. The Republican Party’s dismissal of climate change in favor of its oligarch fossil fuel funders, and the Canadian Conservative Party’s cold xenophobia and allegiance to Canada’s oil sands would guarantee vastly worse outcomes for vastly more people, including their own children and grandchildren.
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