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Mediterranean dreams, climate realities

The drowning of would-be migrants attempting to reach Europe is a humanitarian tragedy that reflects a growing crisis of environmental security.

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Paul Rogers
23 April 2015

The concern over the deaths of thousands of migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean may at last prompt a real increase in efforts to prevent them drowning. European Union leaders met in Brussels on 23 April 2015 and promised a major upgrade in their investment. France and the UK will be among the lead actors of any initiative, in part because these countries pride themselves on having large efficient navies able to deploy serious resources.

These two states have recently neglected the issue of the boat-people. This is bad enough in humanitarian terms. It's even more so in light of the fact that the two countries are more responsible than any other for the near-total lack of national stability and security in Libya, from where the great majority of those who have died had set out 

For many years, a continuous stream of people has attempted to cross into western Europe. Until recently the other favoured routes were Morocco-to-Spain and Turkey-to-Greece. Many making the attempt are motivated by hope for better life-chances, while others are impelled by a desperate effort to escape conflict-zones.

A triple crisis

Two separate elements, both related to current conflicts, have fuelled the escalation in numbers. The first is that a huge swathe of territory - many parts of the Sahel, down to west Africa and across to Syria and Iraq - endemic and violent conflicts have led to far greater displacement of people, with some of them able to get together the money to pay the people-smugglers and ready to take the risk of the crossing.

The second is the state of insecurity in Libya. The country lacks a properly functioning government, and more resembles a set of small and unstable city-states run in many cases by militias. There is little in the way of national policing or, especially important in the current circumstances, an effective coastguard operation. In such circumstances, and with a chaotic economy into the bargain, smuggling people in small boats is both feasible and lucrative. 

The implication of both points is that there is little prospect of the flow of people ending, leaving only hope that Europeans might at last get real about aiding them.

But in turn a third element, this time longer-term, which has the potential greatly to exacerbate the immedate problems. This is climate disruption, and it is already having an impact in terms of extreme weather events. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) calculates that in the last six years, 140 million people have been displaced solely by weather-related disasters. 

These are what Steve Trent of the Environmental Justice Foundation describes as "rapid-onset" disasters, but the much greater problem for the future lies with "slow-onset" processes that may take years to unfold. As Trent puts it:

“The threat that climate change presents to human security is not only related to the dramatic impacts accompanying and following rapid-onset disasters. Slow-onset processes of change such as rainfall variability can erode household-level resilience - the ability to absorb and respond to stressors - by degrading and reducing access to physical, financial, social, political and natural capitals. This is why, for poor and marginalised households, negative impacts which unfold over time can lead to a downward spiralling of livelihood insecurity.”

A vital summit

There is a particular relevance here to the crisis in the Mediterranean. It related to the abundant evidence that the impact of climate change is geographically asymmetric. Warming is more likely in the Polar regions, especially the near-Arctic, and on the tropical and sub-tropical land masses. The Mediterranean basin and south-west Asia are especially likely to heat up and also experience declining rainfall, the overall effect being substantially to decrease the yields from some key food-growing areas.

Timescales are not certain, although climate disruption is already happening on a scale that very few governments will acknowledge. But it's certain that within a decade or two there will be greatly added pressures on migration as afflicted people try to move to seek better lives.

If European states had been more alert to the current humanitarian disaster, and willing to respond more quickly, confidence would have risen in their ability to avoid even greater disasters in the future. Their record and current actions, despite the declarations at the latest summit, provides few grounds for such confidence. But the serious of the crisis and its environmental background makes it at least possibile that the connections will be made more forcibly as the climate summit in Paris in December 2015 approaches.

If that is so, and there is a seriously renewed political drive to more rapidly to low-carbon economies, then the worst of what would otherwise happen might be avoided. It is one more reason why the Paris climate summit should be seen as the most important international gathering of the first two decades of this century.

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