Climate Exchange

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Where are all the Climate Refugees? Why we need to include climate change to the conversation about the refugee crisis


“During the Syrian drought many families moved to urban centres, angry unemployed men providing kindling for the revolution that lead to years of bloody civil war, and supplied many of the refugees heading to Europe.”


Yazidis Fleeing ISIS in Syria (


The beginnings of our scientific worries about Climate Change developed at the end of the Cold War, a time when our answer to the communist threat was: liberalise everything! Like children having just learnt to hold objects in their hands, we smashed through our reforms of deregulation and privatisation, unable to let go, leaving behind a trail of human and environmental devastation. All the while mouths glued to flowing taps serving fossil fuels, exclaiming: “put it on my tab!” But as always, dawn comes around eventually, and we must face reality, clean up our mess, pay the bill, and go home.

In Paris, December 2015, the world’s leaders came together and finally, after years of botched conferences, managed to agree on a path towards climate change mitigation and adaptation, well on paper at least. The world’s first universal climate change agreement was secured, fulfilling a pledge to do so by countries four years ago at talks in Durban, South Africa. It was supposed to mark a change in our response to climate catastrophe, a legitimate statement of intent opening the gates towards a sustainable future. However, over the past year and a half a different gate has opened, and as streams of refugees flooded to Europe’s borders, climate change once again was forgotten. And herein lies the crux of our predicament.

Séance pleinière de la COP21 pour l’adoption de l’accord de Paris (Salle Seine - Le Bourget)

Conférence des Nations Unies sur les changements climatiques – COP21 (Paris, Le Bourget)

COP21 Paris (


Frau Merkel, in her recent TV interview with Anne Will, uncharacteristically lost her composure and exclaimed; “It is my damned duty…[to find a solution to the refugee crisis that does not involve closing Germany’s borders]” and how right she is. However our duty does not stop at our European borders. Whilst our mediation efforts in Libya are failing, and the proxy wars of Russia[1] and the West in Syria make any meaningful solution seem far out of reach, stability will require far more than just the absence of violence, or even the assurance of freedom and democracy. In the years leading up to the Arab Spring, Syria and its neighbours experienced the most devastating drought on record. Our collective dependence on fossil fuels has enabled ISIS to fund its assurgency. Beyond the Middle East, streams of sub-Saharan families are making the arduous journey across the Mediterranean fleeing conflict and parched lands. Consequently, climate change must become a part of the conversation if we are indeed to achieve long-term stability.

Regardless of how swift or effective our response to the climate threat is, we have now done enough damage that avoiding mass climate migration will be difficult. Already inhabitants of low-lying Small Island Developing States are applying for asylum on the grounds of climate change. However, most are being rejected. As rural areas become absorbed in resource conflicts, or ravaged by environmental degradation, communities will increasingly seek refuge in urban areas. For instance, Dhaka already receives 2000 migrants a day. Although its urban fringes have been swelling with economic migrants for years, current migrants flee flooding, drought and other environmental concerns, issues likely to be exacerbated in years to come. During the Syrian drought many families moved to urban centres, angry unemployed men providing kindling for the revolution that lead to years of bloody civil war, and supplied many of the refugees heading to Europe. Environmental grievances aggravated poverty, and in tightly packed urban slums filled with unemployed migrants, extremist propaganda had easy access to new recruits, lured by the promise of an end to their poverty. The effects of environmental damage and increasing resource scarcity will continue to fuel violent conflicts such as the ones we are witnessing today, and so the stream of fleeing families we are witnessing today becomes a river. If the estimated one million refugees who fled to arrived by sea in 2015 are beyond Europe’s capacities, it is hard to think how this ends well.

As Europe deliberates its responses to the crisis, it is clear that closing borders is not an option. Many leaders have underlined the need to tackle the crisis at its source and so ensure stability in the Middle East and North Africa. However stability is framed as democracy, as defeating religious extremism, as freedom and the upholding of human rights, and as a more effective policing of illegal human trafficking. None of these aspects recognise to the role of climate change. And yet conflict management scholarship consistently refers to the consideration of the needs and interests of opposing parties.



Europe has an opportunity to lead by example, just as Germans did through their initial “Willkommens Kultur”. The current crisis can set precedent for future action. For example, a better understanding of environmental grievances as a driver of conflict escalation and/or subsequent seeking of asylum may pave the way towards integrating climate change within the refugee convention. Analysts, given the mandate and budget, will be able to better anticipate pending crises and recommend measures to mitigate and adapt to these. This is not to say that other factors should be ignored. It would be naïve to suggest that climate change is the sole, or even the predominant cause of conflict in the Middle East, as it would be ignoring the underlying issues of arbitrarily drawn state borders, failed regional intervention in the past, and the complex ethnic makeup of the region (to name a few). However, completely omitting climate change from the political discussion only tells part of the story, leaving the possibility of repeated conflict open.

Climate change requires swift and effective response. Climate refugees are a reality and their existence does not cease through a denial of their status, or an omission of climate change from conflict analysis and international security discourse. More importantly, there will be more. Given Europe’s already faltering capacity (as justified or un-justified as this faltering may be), leaving climate change out of the conversation could soon prove fatal.



By Kilian Raiser


[1] Russia has recently withdrawn its troops from Syria but it remains to be seen to what extent this will curb the violence


About Kilian Raiser

Having grown up in diplomatic communities and subsequently studied at the United World College of the Atlantic, Kilian has alway been involved with global issues, especially climate change. He is particularly interested in Urban Planning and Policy. Kilian loves engaging in political and philosophical conversation, and is constantly in search for new opinions and interesting discussions. Otherwise Kilian can be found composing music or practicing with his band, he is also a passionate cook, and wishes he would/could spend more time outdoors, especially in the alps.

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This entry was posted on April 19, 2016 by in Uncategorized.
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