As we enter an era of “global boiling”, a rise in environmental migrants is expected and the EU should realise that climate, not migration, is the greatest threat to Europe and should be our number one priority, writes Fran?ois Gemenne.
Fran?ois Gemenne is a lead author for the IPCC, and a specialist in environmental geopolitics and migration governance at the University of Li?ge, where he is a FNRS senior research associate and the Director of the Hugo Observatory.
The fires that raged around Europe this summer cannot be forgotten once they burn out. July being the hottest month on record – potentially the hottest in 120,000 years – is inarguably the result of climate change.
And the consequences it has wreaked require an urgent reassessment of our political priorities and of the choices the continent and its institutions make.
What those choices should be is clear: a renewed and relentless focus on decarbonisation coupled with protecting us from climate disasters, whether it’s investing in resilient communities or providing safe routes for displaced people.
Climate scientists can assess various future scenarios with a high degree of predictive power. I have worked on Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports that are stacked with grim and painstaking detail about the various threats to lives and livelihoods that emerge if we fail to get the climate emergency under control.
Yet human and institutional behaviour is much harder to predict. Climate disasters are an acid test; We do not yet know the choices that states and elites will make in response to them. But we do know that those choices will define the future for generations.
As well as being a reminder of the urgency of a rapid green transition, the heatwave was also a wake-up call about how we respond to its consequences.
This will not be the last time that extreme weather forces people from their homes at short notice, as happened in Italy and Greece. And in the longer run, changes to food systems and the availability of resources will add to those patterns of movement.
Climate change does not recognise borders, but existing inequalities do determine who is worst affected.
In displacement camps from southern Greece to Syria, the heatwaves brought heightened dangers of disease, death, thirst and hunger to people already in difficult situations.
In June, the Ariadna, a boat carrying hundreds, sank off the Greek coast – now the subject of an EU investigation into the behaviour of border forces. Many of those were fleeing countries wrecked by environmental crises.
Yet just as extreme weather did not discriminate across borders, changes are occurring in the wealthier world too; such as the regions of Europe where billions have been wiped off the value of vineyards and farms.
At the moment, EU policy often does more to harm than help the displaced – and this approach harms Europeans, too.
Whilst underfunded fire services struggled to respond to climate-linked emergencies, border police and guards have received tranches of new EU funding. The EU’s recent deal with Tunisia extends the blanket of suffering caused by EU migration control pacts with neighbouring countries.
Greece claims to be “at war” with climate change, but its government’s most significant demand of Europe has been for border walls.
The world’s strongest economies spend up to sixteen times more on new border controls than on climate finance for those who need it; and the European Commission has just asked for another 15 billion euros for migration, much of which is marked for harsh border enforcement.
These approaches have helped generate rather than solve the humanitarian crisis for displaced people, and the European border is now one of the world’s most lethal border zones.
But they have largely not prevented people from moving, only made those journeys more perilous.
Meanwhile, as Europe’s political focus is occupied by interminable debates over border control, attention risks slipping away from what matters.
Climate, not migration, is the greatest threat to Europe and should be our number one priority. Many policymakers genuinely appreciate this; but from the tone of headline conversations, this is difficult to tell.
Europe has made great strides forward on its Green Deal, from phasing out petrol cars to introducing the world’s first carbon tariff.
Even these noteworthy gains, though, are both insufficient and reversible without relentless focus.
And alongside spurring a single-minded focus on European decarbonisation, this heatwave should also change how we think about responding to climate consequences.
Europe is in a strong position to lead on mitigating climate change, rather than migration control, the first driver of its foreign and development policy.
We can and should be a global leader on climate resilience; from resourcing emergency services and coordinating in cases of cross-national emergencies like this month’s, to long-term building of defences against extreme weather, to facilitating the movement of displaced people when it is needed.
Everyone has the right to stay in their homes and should be facilitated to do so.
But when people need to move – mostly within but sometimes between countries – we should take steps to ensure that movement is safe, with the minimum disruption.
And meanwhile, the noble aspirations of the Green Deal should be extended beyond the European core, with investment in green infrastructure and green jobs from the European heartland to the Middle East and North Africa.
As we enter what UN Secretary-General Ant?nio Guterres calls an era of “global boiling”, those of us who want to see a stronger Europe – one that leads the world in driving a just transition and secures a future in which we can all thrive – must be better-organised than ever.