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Let’s Put Two and Two Together on Refugees and Climate Change

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Syrian boys, whose family fled their home in Idlib, walk to their tent, at a camp for displaced Syrians, in the village of Atmeh, Syria, Monday, Dec. 10, 2012. Source: Flickr

Fifth in a series of blogs on climate change and population displacement.

By Claire Havens, ACT population displacement researcher.

There is a new Liberal government in Canada, and, for many citizens concerned about climate change and the Syrian refugee crisis, the election results mean a chance for real action.

Prime Minister Trudeau has promised to restore Canada’s reputation as a leader on climate policy and science on the global stage. He plans to take the provincial premiers and opposition leaders to Paris for the upcoming 21st Conference of the Parties to establish a strong presence, pledge to improve upon the previous government’s dismal record, and inspire commitments from other countries on reducing emissions. Similarly, he has committed to bringing in 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of the year. Mayors, community leaders, and churches across the country are asking Canadians to open their homes to the expected flood of families arriving over the next seven weeks.

A lot of political hay has been made over the past few months about the causes of the refugee crisis, and our collective responsibility as a developed country to either have a military presence in the region or take in those fleeing conflict. The Liberal party has decided to emphasize action on the latter, with some Conservative supporters accusing them of ignoring the root causes of the crisis: the spread of ISIS in Syria and Iraq and civil war.

This past spring the New York Times reported that the extreme three year drought in Syria from 2006 to 2009 was most likely due to climate change, and that the drought had a ‘catalytic effect’ on the violent uprising against President Bashar al-Assad in 2011. The drought was the worst recorded in modern times; scientists dismiss natural climate variability and point to a century-long trend towards warmer and drier conditions in the Eastern Mediterranean. The Fertile Crescent region experienced a weakening of winds that usually bring moisture-laden air from the Mediterranean, and higher temperatures resulted in more evaporation. Crops failed and as many as 1.5 million impoverished farmers migrated to urban areas – a massive social shift sparking unrest, and eventually civil war.

Researchers are careful to point out that other factors were major contributors to the conflict, including poor agricultural practices, an influx of 1.5 million refugees from Iraq, and Assad’s dictatorial regime. However, the effect of climate change on the mass displacement of people in the region is significant and should not be overlooked.

Despite clear evidence that the conflict in Syria is tied to climate change, the preceding Canadian government failed to publicly acknowledge the relationship between unprecedented drought and violent unrest in the region.

If we are to prevent further conflict, and be able to recognize the warning signs of an unraveling society in the future, we must start to look strategically at climate change as a major cause of political and economic strife. Investigating climate change impacts in developing countries, and the flow of migrants within a region as well as across borders, will help Canada respond more proactively and effectively in the future. If we can plan years ahead of time through modeling expected effects, and respond when we see droughts worsening, persistent flooding, and sea level rise threatening vulnerable populations, we could save millions of lives.

We used to be a leader in development research and conflict resolution. It was often Canada that alerted the world to the moral imperative of intervening to protect vulnerable populations when trouble started brewing, such as in the Rwandan genocide.

For those who see Canada as a compassionate country with open doors for those seeking asylum, Prime Minister Trudeau’s generous response to the refugee crisis is welcome. What we need now from this new government is a preventative strategy to help us understand the root causes of civil unrest and the subsequent creation of refugees.

We now have an opportunity to take that place on the world stage again, and make a meaningful contribution to the global south and developing countries around the world where the effects of climate change are being felt on a daily basis.

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