Populism, migration & climate inaction

The movement of large numbers of refugees seems to encourage right-wing populism, and this populism often seems opposed to action to limit climate change. Systems organise themselves in many ways; here is one dynamic that links refugees, populism and climate action.


The populism feedback cycle

Higher global temperaturesMore extreme weather


Less climate actionMore conflict over land, water, food & housing
More right-wing populismMore migration

In this “populism feedback cycle”:


(1) global heating & extreme weather

Higher global temperatures tend to cause more extreme weather: extreme storms, floods, droughts, fires, heat, and occasionally intense cold.


(2) Extreme weather & conflict

More extreme weather tends to cause more conflict, e.g. severe drought can cause conflict over water. Extreme weather can also cause conflict indirectly by aggravating existing instability. Here are some examples:

** Climate change may have led to war in Syria. The long-term decrease in rainfall and warmer temperatures in the broader region may have made the Syrian 2006 to 2010 drought more severe, contributing to the uprising against the al-Assad regime.
(Global warming contributed to Syria’s 2011 uprising: The Guardian: March 2015)
(Map of the Mediterranean showing areas with dry winters from 1971 to 2010: Washington Post: Sep 2013)
(Water, Drought, Climate Change, and Conflict in Syria: Peter H Gleick: Pacific Institute: Oakland: California: 2014)

** Flooding is forcing people off their land in Bangladesh.
(Boats pass over where our land was: Bangladesh’s climate refugees: The Guardian: Jan 2018)

** Fish populations are moving as the oceans warm. In 2006, mackerel began appearing in Iceland, leading to a dispute over catch quotas between Iceland and the European Union.
(Climate change prompts ‘mackerel wars’: Public Radio International: July 2013)


(3) Conflict & migration

More conflict tends to cause more migration.

Syria had a civil war, terrorism, repression, hunger, drought, poverty, and homelessness. Many Syrians, 5.6 million, became refugees, mainly in the Middle East, and 6.2 million displaced Syrians moved within Syria.

(Forced to flee: Top countries refugees are coming from: World Vision)


(4) Migration & populism

An increase in migration tends to increase right-wing populism with an increasing emphasis on:

  • protection of borders,
  • preservation of cultural identity,
  • national interest rather than international interests,
  • rejection of international agreements and law, &
  • a longing for life as it was in the past.

We have seen this in:

  • Europe: Hungary and Greece
  • France: In EU parliamentary voting, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally party narrowly beat President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist party into second place.
  • Australia with the Coalition and “stop the boats.”
  • The USA, with Donald Trump’s “build the wall.”
  • Britain and the exit from Europe: Nigel Farage and his Brexit Party surged to the top of the polls. The party has no official policies on climate change.
  • Even liberal Sweden is being impacted.

(Can the much-vaunted Nordic welfare model survive immigration?: The Age: 13 July 2019)


(5) Populism & climate action

Increased right-wing populism tends to decrease climate action and the international efforts to stem climate change.

(What the Rise of Right-Wing Populism in Europe Means for Climate Science Denial: DeSmog UK: March 2019)


(6) Climate action & global temperatures

Reduced climate action will extend the period of high greenhouse gases and close the feedback loop by increasing global temperatures.


A dangerous dynamic

As climate change gains strength, this feedback could become dominant and dangerous.


Amplifying feedback cycles and climate change


Updated 28/3/2022