The number of migrants trying to settle in Europe could triple to one million per year by 2100, as climate change wreaks havoc on the new arrivals’ countries of origin, according to a study published last month in the journal Science.
“Europe will see increasing numbers of desperate people fleeing their home countries,” said lead author Wolfram Schlenker of the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs.
The calculation is based strictly on climate trends, “independent of other political and economic factors,” The Guardian reports. “Even if efforts to curb global warming are successful, the number of applications for asylum could rise by a quarter.”
At the UK’s Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, Policy and Communications Director Bob Ward said policy-makers must take the study results seriously.
“Hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, of people will be exposed to coastal sea level rise and shifts in extreme weather that will cause mass migrations away from the most vulnerable locations,” he said. “We know from human history that such migrations often lead to conflict and war, with devastating consequences. The huge potential costs of migration-related conflict are usually omitted from economic models of climate change impacts in the future.”
The Guardian notes that attempted or successful migration to Europe “increased markedly in the last decade, with leading causes including the war in Syria, turmoil in North Africa and the Middle East, and a burgeoning young population with few economic prospects in many regions of Africa and the Middle East.” When the study authors overlaid asylum applications to the European Union between 2000 and 2014 with environmental factors, then adjusted their data for factors like conflict and political turmoil, “they spotted a trend correlating weather and changes in the number of asylum applications,” writes correspondent Fiona Harvey. “
An average temperature around 20°C is ideal for growing many crops, and “the data showed that the more temperatures in a country’s key agricultural regions rose above 20°C in the growing season, the more people left their homes for another country,” she notes. “They recorded increases in the number of migrants from hot places such as Iraq and Pakistan when temperatures rose. However, immigration from colder countries fell when temperatures rose towards 20°C.”
The Columbia researchers’ model projects up to 660,000 more asylum seekers per year, based on the 2.6° to 4.8°C average global warming that climate specialists predict without faster, more aggressive efforts to curb climate change.
The Guardian notes there is some controversy in linking migration with climate change. “Although many scientists, and many studies, are clear that rising temperatures and extreme weather are likely to increase migration, it is difficult to separate this factor from the myriad other factors that drive people to flee their homes,” Harvey writes. But “a drought in Syria from 2006 to 2010 was posited, in a 2015 study, as a factor behind that country’s civil war, which broke out in 2011 and still rages.”
UC-Berkeley researcher Solomon Hsiang, who’s been involved with past studies of climate change and conflict, said decision-makers must prepare for what’s ahead. “We will need to build new institutions and systems to manage this steady flow of asylum-seekers,” he told Harvey. “As we have seen from recent experience in Europe, there are tremendous costs, both for refugees and their hosts, when we are caught flat-footed.”