On Earth Day climate change and conflict are coming together

The implications of climate change go far beyond the physical impact on our land and seas as it is a key driver of mass migration and conflict, argues author Andrew Gilmour, who says the world needs a reset on attitudes if we are to navigate the challenges we face peacefully.

Last summer, as heat records were yet again broken in many parts of the world from Arizona to Aberdeen, and Umbria to Xinjiang, the UN Secretary-General issued a dire warning. The era of global warming has ended, he said; “the era of global boiling has arrived”.

Temperatures have continued to rise since then. What does that mean in human terms? Almost certainly a dramatic increase in both conflict and migration.

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Even before the Anthropocene – the era of human-caused climate change beginning in the 1950s – fluctuations in weather and climate exacerbated conflict. Starting in 1637, for example, Scotland suffered the longest drought in its recorded history, combined with searingly cold winters. The misery this caused is now seen as a contributory factor in the invasion of England by a Scots army in 1640. Similarly, it is believed that cold winters and wet summers, leading to food shortages, heightened anti-English sentiment and support for William Wallace’s rebellion in the 1290s.

Earth Day gives us a moment to take actionEarth Day gives us a moment to take action
Earth Day gives us a moment to take action

In today’s world, we can see how climate change is intensifying conflicts across the Sahel region of north and central Africa, as well as the Middle East. A sustained drought that devastated farmlands and drove rural populations to the cities played a role – together with appalling human rights violations in Iraq and Syria – in incubating extremism and the rise of the brutal Islamic State a decade ago.

In 2015, over a million refugees and migrants – fleeing war and economic hardship both of which were made even worse by climate change – arrived in Europe from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. The EU’s population at that time was well over half a billion, so an increase of under 0.2 per cent should have been treated as a small blip. But the reaction resembled a collective freak-out. In the UK, we saw how this population flow was weaponised by the Brexit campaign just underway, and elsewhere in Europe it led to the growth of far-right political parties in Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands.

As the earth continues to heat up, making land, lives and livelihoods for hundreds of millions of people impossible, one can predict what will happen: people will be compelled to move to less uncongenial climes. Looking at the combined threat of conflict and natural disasters, the Institute for Economics and Peace has predicted a staggering figure of up to 1.2 billion climate migrants by 2050. India and Pakistan are at particular risk of extreme weather conditions, as witnessed by lethal heatwaves in 2022, which were then followed by flooding from melting glaciers that inundated an enormous area of Pakistan, causing $30 billion in damage and economic loss.

‘Climate justice’ is an expression that will become ever more used. Inevitably it is dismissed as ‘radical’ and ‘woke’ by those who are unbelieving of climate science, hostile to immigration, and dismissive of international justice. Yet it is increasingly hard to ignore, because it is based on an irrefutable fact. This is that the countries most affected by climate change are usually also among the poorest in the world (therefore least able to adapt), at the same time as having contributed by far the least to emissions that cause that climate change. In other words, it is the richer countries – including the UK, the country which industrialised first of all – which contributed most, but are likely to suffer least from the greenhouse gases they are continuing to emit. By contrast, the whole of Africa, large parts of which are suffering terribly from climate change already, has emitted under 4 per cent of the total.

That being the case, it is a moral imperative to move beyond the right-wing rhetoric of building walls, capsizing dinghies, dispatching refugees to Rwanda, and generally ‘pulling up drawbridges’ against desperate people unable to remain in their countries of origin.

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So what should be done given: 1) it is highly likely that the numbers of climate refugees will increase exponentially; 2) there is an exceptionally strong ethical case for allowing some of them to enter Europe, including Scotland?

First of all, politicians in the UK, US and EU need to be far more up-front about the probable increase of migration. The topic needs to be handled in a way that impedes the far-right profiting from it. We know that those same politicians who are quickest to deny the realities of climate change are also those who are most fervently anti-immigrant. And yet at the same time, they are gleefully aware that they gain in electoral terms from an increase in migration (that their climate denialism has contributed to, by discouraging action to reduce emissions) because the arrival of more migrants helps fuel their nativist narrative.

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Starting an informed debate about climate justice, while also pointing out that declining birth rates throughout the Western world means that we actually need more immigration to keep our economies going, is the first step. Scotland is a world leader in this regard, setting up its Climate Justice Fund as early as 2012, and being one of the first to contribute to the new Loss and Damage Fund set up at COP in 2022.

Secondly, more needs to be invested in ‘environmental peacebuilding’, a relatively new concept whereby parties in dispute work on shared ecological issues as a first step to resolving their differences on more contentious issues. Organisations working on conflict resolution, such as the Berghof Foundation, are starting to use this approach in places like Somalia and Iraq.

Third, climate adaptation measures should be more focused on agriculture, given that any country’s inability to feed itself is a major driver for migration. Approaches such as the System of Rice Intensification can triple yields and farmers’ incomes, while also reducing methane emissions as well as water consumption.Fourth, climate finance needs reforming. The situation at the moment is absurd. The countries that are most vulnerable to climate and conflict currently receive per capita less than 2 per cent of those that are less vulnerable.

Edinburgh’s vibrant financial services sector could play a key part in pushing governments to provide guarantees to private investors that would enable them to take the necessary risks to invest in less stable environments (indemnifying them for a portion of their potential losses).

In short, climate change and conflict are coming together in new ways that we are only beginning to understand. But it seems highly likely that these will involve major increases in the number and intensity of conflicts, as well as a surge in migration away from uninhabitable areas. There are ways to reduce these dangers by well-targeted measures that could induce would-be migrants to remain in their homelands.

That will not be enough, however. A principled stance by governments – one which promotes the values of human rights, peaceful approaches, and climate justice – is also a requirement, not least to convince populations that major changes to our ways of life are coming our way. Pretending otherwise will be neither ethical nor possible. But at least Scotland has made a start that it can be proud of, one that needs to be both strengthened and emulated.

The Burning Question: Climate and Conflict - Why Does it Matter? by Andrew Gilmour is published by the Berghof Foundation priced £15, out now.