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Beyond Borders: Our changing climate – its role in conflict and displacement

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Executive summary

“A continually warming world will be a graveyard for entire ecosystems, entire peoples – and potentially even entire nations.” “There is a clear disconnect between the Paris Agreement’s stated ambition to limit warming to less than two degrees and the commitments countries have made. That gap must be closed.” “The world cannot wait.”
Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, 2016

• Each of the last three decades has been successively warmer than any preceding decade since 1850, and in 2015 temperature rise exceeded 1.0°C, compared to preindustrial times, for the first time.3 These changes will have an escalating, negative impact on our environment, economies, livelihoods and security globally. These impacts will disproportionately affect the most vulnerable groups in society, and those who have contributed least to climate change will be first and worst affected by it. If unchecked, some predict that climate change could draw up to 720 million people back into extreme poverty and create millions or even billions of climate refugees.6 A study published in 2013 suggested that the effects of climate change could precipitate as much as a 56% increase in the frequency of intergroup conflicts across the world.

• Climate change can take the form of slow-onset environmental degradation, such as the melting of polar ice caps and rising sea levels, increased salinization of groundwater and soil, droughts and desertification from changed precipitation levels. It can also take the form of sudden-onset disasters including storms and floods, heatwaves and wildfires. The number of weather-related natural disasters has risen on all continents since 1980. From 1970 to 2012 there were 8,835 disasters related to climate, of which 3,496 took place between 2001 and 2010.10 More than half of these were related to rainfall patterns; both floods and droughts are increasingly evident in many parts of the world.

• Climate change is resulting in the destruction of livelihoods, infrastructure and communities and – without further action – is likely to force people to leave their homes and drive forced migration. In 2016 extreme weather-related disasters displaced around 23.5 million people. Since 2008, an average of 21.7 million people were displaced each year by such hazards. This does not include the people forced to flee their homes as a consequence of slow-onset environmental degradation, such as droughts.

• EJF defines all these people as climate refugees: “persons or groups of persons who, for reasons of sudden or progressive climate-related change in the environment that adversely affects their lives or living conditions, are obliged to leave their habitual homes either temporarily or permanently, and who move either within their country or abroad.”

• Rising temperatures and changing rainfall patterns will have widespread, large-scale negative impacts on food production and food security. Between 1985 and 2007, droughts drove a 13.7% loss in cereal production, compared to just 6.7% in losses between 1964 and 1984. Drought is one of the key factors for agricultural failure and it is expected that the increase in intensity, frequency and duration of such droughts - all consequences of climate change - will bring about significant declines to crop yields.

• Environmental change can be seen to drive conflicts over land or resources, which in turn can lead to the displacement of people. Forced migration can be triggered by environmental conflicts, but forced migration due to the scarcity of food or extreme weather events can also in itself trigger conflicts. The interaction between different social, economic and political variables – as well as environmental factors – are strong influencers of wars and armed conflicts in vulnerable countries.

• This report includes a focus on impacts of changing weather patterns on food security, and how this helped fuel the Syrian war. The Syrian war, now in its seventh year, has resulted in more than 470,000 deaths and 13.5 million people require humanitarian assistance. 6.6 million people have been internally displaced and nearly five million people are residing in camps in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon as well as an estimated 1.2 million seeking refuge in Europe. Whilst the war was not solely a result of climate change, the intertwining effects of drought, rural to urban migration, and the increasing unrest due to a lack of government measures to avoid water scarcity, unemployment and growing inequality, corruption and political oppression are clear.

• EJF urges the international community to acknowledge the reality of climate change and take urgent action to limit the crippling effects on our global community. We note the imperative for greater consensus and support for vulnerable nations to increase their resilience to climate risks and adapt to their impact. We call for an international agreement that will clarify the rights and ensure the protection of climate refugees, with the immediate appointment of a United Nations Special Rapporteur to convene, initiate and guide preparatory discussions towards this end. Most important of all, is the need to end our ‘carbon addiction’ and meet our shared international commitment under the Paris Agreement, to cut greenhouse gas emissions and ensure that temperature rise is kept below 1.5°C on pre-industrial levels.