The great migration paradox: climate change, the UK & the politics of Europe

What happens as large scale migration becomes inevitable due to a combination of environmental, economic and humanitarian reasons. Do we tackle the push factors and help the displaced, or worsen the conditions driving displacement, and rejecting responsibility for those affected?

The politics of immigration are reshaping Britain, and will increasingly be at the heart of climatic upheaval.  Fellow travelling with the campaign for Britain to leave the EU were views sceptical of action on global warming and in favour of economic and financial deregulation. It’s a paradoxical package, on the one hand creating the conditions for human displacement and migration through environmental damage and inequality, and on the other washing its hands of the inevitable consequences.

People are on the move in ever larger numbers. Global inequality is recognised as one push factor in human displacement, seen in the pejorative term ‘economic migrant.’ Climate change is another major factor set to worsen. UNHCR points to the recent doubling of natural disasters in a two decade period to over 400 per year, nine out of ten of which are climate related. In a single year, 2008, sudden disasters that were climate induced may have displaced 20 million people. Since 2008, on average of 22.5 million people – 62,000 per day – have been displaced by ‘climate or weather related events.’

The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, whose figures exclude drought and ‘slow burn’ environmental degradation, say the largest increase in push factors were seen to be weather, especially floods, and other climate related impacts. Overall, people are twice as likely to be displaced today than they were in the 1970s and, even allowing for population growth, the chance of being displaced by a disaster has risen 60 percent. One country alone, Bangladesh, could lose nearly one fifth of its land to global warming this century, creating 30 million climate refugees.

The Brexit campaign pivoted around the issue of migration. Key protagonists like Ukip, who promoted and played on fears of migration including the infamous poster, are also antagonistic toward renewable energy and broadly climate sceptic. Andrea Leadsom, the new Secretary of State for Environment, who received support from key Ukip figures, questioned the reality of climate change when taking a job as energy minister, and is now part of a government that has abolished its dedicated climate department, the full effects of which are yet to be shown.

The politics of Brexit are set to dominate Britain for years to come, holding hostage a broad range of public and environmental policy. One of the greatest threats to effective climate action will simply be the huge distraction for Whitehall of negotiating Brexit and renegotiating countless other treaties. The tragedy is that the whole project is built on a wildly distorted projection of Britain’s relative role in dealing with the global displacement of people.

While the number of displaced people is shockingly high and rising globally, the latest figures from UNHCR clearly show its not countries like Britain mainly dealing with the problem. More than eight out of ten refugees were given shelter by poor and middle income countries close to conflicts, not by the world’s wealthy countries like us at all. The Lebanon, under extreme stress from the war in Syria, housed one refugee for every five of its own citizens. The comparative number for the UK would be around one refugee for every 524 citizens. In order, the countries taking the most are: Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Islamic Rep. of Iran, Ethiopia, Jordan, Kenya, Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo and Chad.

Yet, the former Prime Minister, David Cameron, was just one politician to use inflammatory, dehumanising language, describing migrants coming to Britain as a ‘swarm’. The new Prime Minister, Theresa May, did little better, running the Home Office with a policy to create a ‘hostile environment’ people in the UK without legal permission with mobile posters telling them to ‘go home or get arrested’. But, behind the impression created of a set-upon Britain, inundated with problem EU migration, was a far less dramatic picture.  Our population is projected to grow to about 70 million by 2027, and 51 percent will likely be from net migration, less than half of which, around 45 percent, will actually be from the EU. That means that if you are standing in a room today with 65 people, ten years from now the additional number of people sharing that room with you, due to migration from the EU, will be just over one.

Tightening border controls for people in a world of freely moving finance and one-sided trade, and in the grip of climatic upheaval, can only entrench and worsen poverty. It takes away one key, remaining option for people to improve their circumstances. Conversely, an environmentally viable, more equal global economy needs better management of international finance and trade. How can these things be balanced? Wanting democratically to manage your borders is entirely legitimate, if done fairly and coherently. But that means exemplary climate policy and other innovations, such as taxing destabilising, cross-border financial speculation, as one attractive way of paying to ease tensions around migration.

But Britain finds itself in the grip of self-defeating politics, with a new carbon budget but no policy package to deliver it, accused by Ban Ki-Moon’s UN climate envoy of betraying the Paris deal.The National Grid says we are set to miss our renewables and emissions reduction targets. Having voted to leave Europe, it now looks as if we are voting with our feet to leave a stable climate. Some are understandably keen, perhaps desperate, to discern a silver lining from the current cloud, assuming some grander scheme in the manoeuvres of the new administration. But, in politics, signals matter. And, few seem stronger than housing the new government department for exiting Europe in the offices of the newly abolished department for energy and climate change.


A shorter version of the article appeared on The Guardian website

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