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Rohingya refugees fleeing Myanmar arrive at the border of Bangladesh in 2017. War and politics are common factors in mass migration, but soon climate change may be too. Photo: AFP

Climate change must be dealt with before it unleashes millions of global-warming refugees

Mike Rowse says mass migration, driven by war and politics, has already fuelled social discontent in Europe and America. But things may get much worse if climate change continues unchecked and leaves millions in at-risk countries homeless

Millions of people around the world are being forced from their homes by violent circumstances. Many more aspire to move to another country in search of a better life for themselves and their families. These twin drivers of mass migration are already triggering political trauma in destination countries. And now there’s a third factor with the potential to cause human suffering on a massive scale: climate change.
There are two broad groups of reasons why people up sticks and move to a different country: the necessity-push and the opportunity-pull. Up until now, probably the most common push factors have been war and politics. During the violent partition that accompanied the birth of India and Pakistan in 1947, millions scrambled to get on the “right” side of the new borders. Closer to home, the Vietnam war ended with hundreds of thousands of those associated with the losing regime fleeing from the south, many stopping over in Hong Kong on their way to safety in a sanctuary country.
More recently, the appalling civil war in Syria has displaced millions of its citizens, mostly to adjacent countries such as Turkey and Jordan, though about a million flooded into western Europe, and many settled in Germany. A military crackdown in Myanmar has forced over 700,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh. A question mark hangs over the residence rights of four million people in India, who have been left off a citizens’ register on suspicion of being illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

The pull factor in migration has undergone a step change in recent years, thanks to technological progress. The possibility of a better life somewhere else has historically been uncertain because of a lack of reliable information about what life “over there” was really like. It took time for news to filter back and it was safer to maintain the status quo.

A Canadian immigration officer interviews a Vietnamese family in a refugee camp in Sham Shui Po in 1979. Photo: C.Y. Yu

But with the prevalence of mobile phones now, everyone can see for themselves pictures of what life is like in wealthy countries. The certainty of misery in poorer parts of the world can now be contrasted with images of well-fed people living more comfortable lives overseas.

The most desirable destination countries have struggled to cope with the throngs of arrivals both practically and politically. Recent election results in Europe have shown conclusively that anti-immigrant feelings run high. Italy’s new government has taken a hard line against would-be migrants from Africa, even turning ships away.
In Sweden, an anti-immigration party finished a close third behind two established middle-of-the-road parties in recent elections. German politics is still affected by the arrival of a million migrants in 2015 and 2016, mostly from Syria; the hard-right Alternative for Germany is now the main opposition party.
In Denmark, Austria and Hungary, to name a few, general public sentiment is against large numbers of people being allowed entry and settlement. Some analysts believe that immigration was a major factor in the Brexit vote in Britain, and in the election of Donald Trump in the United States. In Australia, the treatment of asylum seekers is a hot-button issue.
One of Donald Trump’s campaign promises was to build a border wall between Mexico and the US. Photo: AFP I

In all of the cases, the exact causes vary, but cultural differences, religious beliefs and sometimes naked racism play some part.

Into this tricky mix, let us add climate change. The world’s climate has always varied through the ages, as the deniers never cease to point out. But the scientific community has reached a high degree of consensus that human activity – in particular, the widespread use of coal and other carbon-emitting fuels since the modern industrial era began – is causing global warming.

According to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2018 is on track to be the fourth hottest year on record. Just three other years have been hotter: 2015, 2016 and 2017.

We in Hong Kong have just experienced the strongest typhoon on record. Scientists say there may be fewer – but bigger and stronger – such storms in future. At a global level, a real danger is that melting polar caps will cause sea levels to rise and leave several countries under water. Already, the government of the Maldives has held a cabinet meeting underwater to highlight the threat.

The islands’ population is under half a million – perhaps they could be squeezed into Sri Lanka. What about Fiji and other islands at risk in the Pacific? Maybe New Zealand could take them in. But what are we going to do if Bangladesh should slip beneath the waves? Where do we expect 163 million people to go?

An aerial view of an atoll in the Maldives, which faces dangers such as rising sea levels and more intense storms. Photo: Reuters

The world knows what it has to do to avert tragedy. The problem is the costs of coping with climate change, which have to be paid right here, right now, and which voters must be persuaded to cover. But in such a critical hour, the leader of the free world has abdicated responsibility.

Not content with pulling the US out of the Paris climate accord, Trump has put new emphasis on the coal industry in America. At his age, he might not need to worry about the long-term consequences of his pro-coal policy changes. But as a father and grandfather, he should be. His grandchildren in particular – like the rest of the world – will not forgive him.

Mike Rowse is the CEO of Treloar Enterprises. [email protected]

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Act now on climate change, or millions will be homeless