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24th Mar 2019

Climate refugees coming to Europe, Juncker warns

  • In the future, changing climate may become a much more powerful factor in causing people to flee their homes (Photo: Mikko Itälahti)

EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker warned that “climate refugees” will descend on Europe if government leaders fail to achieve an international climate treaty in Paris in December.

"Tomorrow morning we will have climate refugees", Juncker said on Wednesday (9 September) in his State of the European Union address in Strasbourg.

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"We have to act now, we don't have time to lose", the Luxembourgish politician noted, adding that Europe has made "huge efforts" in the fight against climate change but "probably not enough".

Juncker's comments followed a similar warning from French president Francois Hollande, who will host the UN talks on efforts to reduce the impact of global warming.

If Paris fails, "it won't be hundreds of thousands of refugees in the next 20 years, it will be millions", Hollande said Monday.

No clear definition

A week earlier, US Secretary of State John Kerry also spoke about climate refugees.

"You think migration is a challenge to Europe today because of extremism, wait until you see what happens when there's an absence of water, an absence of food, or one tribe fighting against another for mere survival", Kerry said.

But what is a climate refugee?

There is no internationally-accepted definition, although the term has been used for years.

Most recently, some media have called fleeing Syrians climate refugees, citing the drought in the country as the cause of civil war.

However, as several researchers were quick to note in response to that claim, violent conflicts rarely have one cause.

"You can see a link between drought-induced displacement … But it's a little bit too deterministic to assume that all of that is what lead to the war in Syria as we see it today,” Doris Carrion, researcher at Chatham House, told the Guardian.

If a climate refugee is a refugee driven primarily by a change in climate, then it is probably more accurate to use the term for a future category.

Disruptive effects

Given the increase in global warming, brought about by greenhouse gas emissions, the more we can expect to see a disruptive effect on society.

While climate scientists will always be very cautious about providing causal relations, the risk of regions becoming increasingly inhabitable because of rising temperatures is very much present.

With climate being such a complex system, it is difficult for scientists to determine whether human-induced climate change is the cause of a single drought, such as in Syria.

However, the most recent synthesis report by climate scientists, published last November 2014, is clear about what likely lays ahead.

The report predicts with "high confidence" that climate change will undermine food security, and that the situation will worsen in tandem with rising temperatures.

Currently, the global average temperature is already 0,8 degrees Celsius up on pre-industrial levels. Climate negotiators in Paris will try to come to a deal that will limit global warming to 2 degrees.

The report announced there is "medium evidence" that climate change will increase migration, especially from poorer places in the world.

"Populations that lack the resources for planned migration experience higher exposure to extreme weather events, particularly in developing countries with low income", noted the report, which was written and scrutinised by hundreds of scientists.

"Climate change can indirectly increase risks of violent conflicts by amplifying well-documented drivers of these conflicts such as poverty and economic shocks (medium confidence)", the authors added.

So climate change is likely to become one of the factors influencing people's decision whether to leave their country or not.

Synergies

On Monday, the European commission announced it had ideas to link the overproduction of milk by European farmers to the nutritional need of refugees.

Since both issues require a response at European level, the Commission wants to look at possible "synergies between responses", commissioner Jyrki Katainen said.

It appears that Juncker is now also trying to find synergy by linking the refugee and climate challenges.

While refugees arriving in Europe provoke a very acute and salient image to European citizens, the complex issue of climate change is more difficult to keep high on the public agenda.

According to the most recent EU Eurobarometer survey of public opinion, carried out last May, 38 percent of respondents said immigration is one of the two most important issues facing the EU – up from 24 percent in the previous survey six months before.

Only 6 percent said climate change, down from 7 percent.

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