Hotter temperatures will accelerate asylum-seekers migration to Europe

Columbia notes that in a further setback to reducing U.S. carbon emissions, the U.S Environmental Protection Agency has proposed lowering the U.S. government’s “social cost” of carbon, or the estimated cost of sea-level rise, lower crop yields, and other climate-change related economic damages, from $42 per ton by 2020 to a low of $1 per ton. The EPA partly arrived at the lower figure by excluding the cost of U.S. emissions on other countries, yet as the study shows, effects in developing countries have clear spillovers on developed countries. “In the end, a failure to plan adequately for climate change by taking the full cost of carbon dioxide emissions into account will prove far more costly,” said Missirian, a fourth-year sustainable development major.

The research adds to a growing body of evidence that weather shocks can destabilize societies, stoke conflict and force people to flee their home countries. In a widely-cited 2011 study in Nature, a team of researchers led by Solomon Hsiang, then a graduate student at SIPA, linked modern El Niño drought cycles to increased violence and war globally.

More recently, researchers have highlighted the connection between the drying of the Middle East and ongoing conflict there. In a 2015 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, another team of Columbia researchers made the case that climate change made Syria’s 2006-2010 drought two to three times more likely, and that the drought was a catalyst for Syria’s 2011 uprising. The civil war that followed has so far claimed 500,000 lives, by one estimate, and forced 5.4 million Syrians to flee the country.

Germany has taken in the largest share of asylum-seekers from Syria and elsewhere, but increasingly faces a backlash from German voters worried about assimilation and loss of jobs. A wave of anti-immigrant sentiment elsewhere in Europe has led to Hungary building a wall to keep refugees out and influenced Great Britain’s decision to leave the European Union. In the United States, President Trump was elected in part on his promise to build a wall to block Mexican immigrants from entering the country illegally.

Hsiang, now an economics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who was not involved in the research, called the study an “incredibly important” wakeup call. “We will need to build new institutions and systems to manage this steady flow of asylum seekers,” he said. “As we have seen from recent experience in Europe, there are tremendous costs, both for refugees and their hosts, when we are caught flat footed. We should plan ahead and prepare.”

Colin Kelley, a climate scientist at Columbia’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society who linked climate change to Syria’s ongoing conflict, also praised the research. “It’s unclear how much more warming will occur between now and the end of the century, but the study clearly demonstrates just how much climate change acts as a threat multiplier. Wealthier countries can expect to feel the direct and indirect effects of weather shocks from manmade climate change in poorer, less resilient countries.”

The research was initiated at the request of the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC), which also provided funding. “These findings will be especially important to policymakers since they show that climate impacts can go beyond the borders of a single country by possibly driving higher migration flows,” said Juan-Carlos Ciscar, a senior expert at the JRC’s Economics of Climate Change, Energy and Transport Unit. “Further research should look at ways for developing countries to adapt their agricultural practices to climate change.”

— Read more in A. Missirian el al., “Asylum applications respond to temperature fluctuations,” Science 358, no. 6370 (22 December 2017): 1610-14 (DOI: 10.1126/science.aao0432)