Recently, the topic of refugees has dominated political debate and has almost entirely eclipsed other issues, including that of climate policy, where important decisions are pending until there is a strategic course of action.
Political discourse, however, is overlooking just how closely both subjects are entwined. Climate change is already influencing global migration patterns today and will increasingly do so in the future.
It is clear that people would abandon their homes to save their families and their own lives from war and violence. Others are forced to migrate by poverty and a lack of prospects. Or even by environmental disasters and a creeping deterioration of the environment, which robs communities of their livelihoods, driving them into poverty.
Climate change makes this vicious cycle even worse, leading to more heat waves, more droughts, floods and extreme weather, especially in developing countries. According to a University of Hamburg study for Greenpeace, 25 million people a year on average are driven from their homes by natural disasters. The consequences of climate change in sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and South Asia may cause over 140 million people to lose their homes, or be forced to relocate due to droughts, crop failures, storm surges and rising sea waters by 2050, according to a World Bank study.
The Hamburg University study references climate simulations which show parts of the Middle East and Northern Africa becoming uninhabitable thanks to prolonged heat waves and desert storms – with temperatures over 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit) on summer nights and daytime temperatures over 46 degrees (115 degrees Fahrenheit).
The vast majority of migration movements occur within the homeland or to neighboring countries, with only a small subset willing to following the uncertain and dangerous road to Europe. These families carry the hope of one day being able to return home when living conditions have improved. It is here that long-term strategies for addressing the causes of migration and mitigating climate change intersect.
We cannot hide
If climate change could be slowed down, this would be a significant step in stemming migratory pressures found in developing countries, one that is not to be underestimated. Protecting the climate not only helps indirectly by reducing the frequency of extreme weather events and the amount of land lost to rising seas, but it also directly improves the quality of life of people living in poor countries.
Despite all the advances made in recent decades, nearly every seventh world citizen is living without electricity. This is especially true in sub-Saharan Africa, where electricity is available only to 43% of its population.
Electricity, however, stands to be the most important source of energy in a post-fossil fuel future: It can be renewable and used in a variety of ways. Without electrification, decarbonization of the planet will not be successful, nor will lesser-developed countries be able to catch up with the living standards of the rich.
Currently, in many regions, standalone solutions are the only viable options. Take Tanzania for example. Climate change and its effects – long-lasting droughts, floods and soil erosion – have long been a reality. Crops rot or dry up because there are incessant problems maintaining the water and energy supply. An E.ON sponsored startup has set up an interesting project there that installs and operates small power grids and solar panels with batteries in villages that used to rely on inefficient and unreliable diesel generators.
This is a small project of many; all of them show how modern, climate-friendly and predominately electric energy solutions can improve the lives of people living in poorer countries. More of these solutions are needed.
Anyone who thinks climate change will affect those of us living in Europe, at best, in the distant future, is fooling themselves. Climate change is already affecting our countries, and that includes the mothers, fathers, sons and daughters who have fled its impact. However, helping people in their homeland requires an effective, long-term climate policy. Our industrialized world created these problems; we cannot just duck out now that it is time to cope with them.
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