Climate change is set to become the biggest driver of future migration

200 million people will be forced to flee their homes over the next 30 years if climate change continues at the same pace.

Reinsurance is designed to protect insurance companies from risk posed by large-scale events, e.g. natural disasters such as floods, earthquakes and forest fires. In order to ensure businesses in the reinsurance sector remain profitable, it is crucial that all types of risk and probability are calculated with the highest degree of accuracy. The world’s biggest reinsurer is Munich RE and their scientifically-based prognoses are considered extremely accurate. For a number of years, the company’s analysts have been examining the possible impacts of climate change. Munich RE’s director Nikolaus von Bomhard recently made the following statement concerning current high refugee numbers and the predicted climate refugee phenomenon: “I fear what we have seen up until now is merely the tip of the iceberg. Even as we speak, there are approximately 60 million refugees on the move globally. This figure will grow if the world does not succeed in containing the ever growing number of conflicts across so many countries, and if the process of climate change continues unabated. Climate change has the potential to become one of the main drivers of future migration.” (Der Spiegel, 24/10/15).

António Guterres, the UN high commissioner for refugees, already predicted back in 2009 at the Copenhagen climate summit that it would not be long before climate change would become the main driver behind human migration. According to Greenpeace, today more than 20 million people are fleeing the effects of climate change. As they are classed as climate migrants and thus do not meet the criteria of the Geneva refugee convention, they are not included in the UNHCR’s refugee statistics. However, the factors causing people to flee often overlap and they are becoming ever more closely interlinked. Gerd Müller, Germany’s minister for economic cooperation and development, recently alluded to this, stating: “Few people are aware that from 2006 to 2011 Syria suffered its worst drought for 100 years. Regional experts suggest that this drought added fuel to the fire of the Syrian political crisis.” (Handelsblatt, 1/11/15).

According to the views of constitutional law expert Reinhard Merkel, the legal status of these additional climate migrants needs to be clarified as a matter of urgency; these refugees are set to soon appear in numbers so high that it will be impossible for richer states to simply dismiss them. Not to mention the fact that these states have a moral duty to take responsibility as it was their own pursuit of the “American way of life” that has made them the biggest contributors to the climate crisis. In 2009 in a report for the general assembly, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon quoted prognoses supported by the scientific community on the expected number of climate refugees: predictions fluctuate between 50 and 350 million by the year 2050 (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 27/09/15). Similar results were found by a Greenpeace study. According to their research, 200 million people will be forced to flee their homes over the next 30 years if climate change continues at the same pace. (Gerd Müller also claims that “experts expect 200 million climate refugees worldwide”). “The issue of climate change points to a double injustice of the most intolerable nature,” explains Andree Böhling, a climate expert at Greenpeace“Whilst the poorest in the world, who have done very little to contribute to global warming, will be the first in the line of fire when temperatures rise, industrial nations continue to deny the existence of climate refugees, instead using existing refugee laws to shut themselves off from the issue.” 


Up to their necks

And it doesn’t stop there. Wealthy states are not only raising their drawbridges to the approaching influx of refugees; they are also putting up their defences when it comes to the rising sea levels that are also being predicted. Scientists in the Netherlands are working intensively to develop a new system of levees and are using enormous wave machines to test whether existing levees are able to face the challenge of rising sea levels along with the worst flooding the country has seen in a thousand years. Half of Holland’s population lives below sea level. The wave machine alone cost EUR 25 million and the Netherlands has invested countless billions in sea defences since the catastrophic flooding of 1953. There are also plans to invest over EUR 100 billion in coastal protection by 2100 (cf. Süddeutsche Zeitung, 31/10/15).

Such sophisticated measures are beyond the reach of a country as desperately poor as Bangladesh, with a population of 160 million and an annual GDP of just USD 113 billion. The people of Bangladesh will thus be quite literally up to their necks if the devastating effects of climate change continue; should the sea level rise by one meter, 17 percent of the country’s land mass will be flooded. It’s not difficult to imagine the scale of the refugee crisis this would trigger.

Despite this alarming prognosis, there is no sign of a real breakthrough being achieved at this year’s climate summit in Paris. Even the conference that preceded it, the G20 summit in Antalya, managed only meagre commitments to climate protection. Paris is one of our last chances to agree to radical solutions and actions that will allow us to stay under the two-degree threshold. 

However, at present the signs seem to be pointing towards a different outcome. With an eye on the UN climate summit in Paris, Deutsche Bank took action to calm oil share investors who are concerned about a carbon bubble (a speculative bubble arising from the impossibility of meeting the agreed two-degree target whilst continuing to exploit existing fossil fuels) caused by “ambitious climate policies” by releasing the following statement: “What truth lies behind this carbon bubble? How high is the risk that the value of traditional energy companies will fall dramatically as a result of ambitious climate change policies? There are many reasons why investors would decrease their share of investments in ‘fossil-fuel-based energy companies’ (or stop them entirely) and instead choose other investment options. However, an ambitious, reliable and internationally recognised agreement on climate change and lower global demand for fossil fuels should not be listed among them. A carbon bubble is unlikely to occur in such an environment […]”. A cynical claim, especially considering the disastrous impact the current climate policy is having.

The last word goes to Munich RE head Bombard, who recently said in an interview with German magazine Der Spiegel (24/10/15): “A global climate agreement with binding CO2 reduction targets will have a much more significant impact on the future numbers of migrants coming to Europe than a new border fence or patrol boats in the Mediterranean. That is why Paris can and must send out a positive message. What will ultimately be crucial is not so much the commitments made on paper but actual political acts. The overall dilemma is the short-sightedness of politics. That’s why it is so hard for politicians to plan and take action beyond their legislative term. They need to tackle the root causes of migration once and for all, and climate change is one of them.”

Translation: Veronika Peterseil

Originally published in German on 23 November at: