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A Climate Refugee Crisis in the Offing

November-December 2020

Emaciated cattle at a market in the Sahel region of Africa

Fulani herders gather in June 2019 at a cattle market in the Sahel region of Africa. Rising temperatures are making life harder in this semi-arid region, driving inhabitants to cities.

Photograph by Marco Longari /AFP via Getty Images


Fulani herders gather in June 2019 at a cattle market in the Sahel region of Africa. Rising temperatures are making life harder in this semi-arid region, driving inhabitants to cities.

Photograph by Marco Longari /AFP via Getty Images

Rising temperatures have the potential to lead to large-scale, famine-induced migrations from equatorial countries: a series of humanitarian disasters, triggered as climate refugees leave homelands that have become inhospitable to their pastoral lives. That could lead to significant international instabilities, with unpredictable monetary and human costs. The fraught politics surrounding immigration in Europe and the United States will only exacerbate the issue.

Jennifer Leaning, an expert on disaster preparedness and response, has witnessed climate-induced migration firsthand. “Everybody lives in some connection with their environment,” says the professor of the practice of health and human rights at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and associate professor of emergency medicine at Harvard Medical School. But in developed countries, she says, “Many use technology and energy to mitigate or reduce their interactions with the natural world, whether through air conditioning, factory farming, or other means. All these protections and lifestyle advantages require extraction and consumption of fossil fuel. The people who are most susceptible to the consequences of that consumption are those who have the least protections from or capacity to mitigate their environment. And they constitute the great majority of the world’s population. They bear the consequences of climate change in place—until they cannot. And then they begin to move, as they already are, in very large numbers.

“I don’t think it’s going to be possible to convey to the wealthy and comfortable, in an article, what it’s like to live in unpleasant and deeply uncomfortable touch with one’s natural environment,” she continues, “but let me just begin.”

In the northern Sahel of Africa, a semi-arid region just south of the Sahara, new extremes of heat have begun to make life untenable, Leaning explains. “The air in densely settled agrarian communities can be somewhat filthy because it’s contaminated with animal dung, sand, dirt, and human feces that the wind whips up. The smell is very bad when many people try to eke out a living in an environment already heat- and water-stressed. You sweat, even though you are parched.” As temperatures range above 100, work becomes debilitating. Leaning has witnessed the endgame for farmers in this environment, struggling to feed their livestock after a crop failure. In the last stages of desperation, they sell all their animals for meat; the price of meat collapses; and the farmers make little money on the sale. Soon they have nothing left. Half-starved, they have no choice but to leave with their families for cities. Already, such climate refugees have overwhelmed cities like Lagos, Nairobi, and Addis Ababa. African cities are somewhat hostile toward these immigrants, who are generally less educated; integrating them into urban work opportunities is hard. Consequently, many emigrate. “They’re not used to cold,” says Leaning. “They’re weak and malnourished; they have intestinal parasites, and recurrent bouts of malaria. Those who were malnourished as children may not be able to learn new skills such as reading and writing.”

By 2040, the heat is predicted to become severe throughout the Middle East and North Africa. In parts of the Levant, says Leaning, there will be periods when for perhaps 80-100 consecutive days the temperature will never fall below 100 degrees Fahrenheit, even at night. In wealthy urban centers like Dubai, a new mall and railway connecting the city center to the airport are already being built underground, to escape the swelter. But such extravagances are not an option for impoverished people. “If we think the Syrian refugee crisis of one and a half million in Lebanon, and three and a half million in Turkey, and hundreds of thousands trying to get into Europe, is a problem—it is trivial compared to what’s coming with the impending climate crisis. We must make every effort to make it possible for these “climate refugees” to remain at home,” says Leaning, “but for some the climate will be too forbidding, and we must welcome and accept and bring them into our lives.”

Climate refugees will thus become the visible symbol of humanity’s carbon crisis.

                                                                             ~ Jonathan Shaw

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