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. Understanding the dynamic and finding ways of limiting its impact could increase climate action. You can think of this dynamic as a sequence of causally linked changes that form a closed loop:

More global heatingMore extreme weather

Less climate actionMore social & political instability
More right-wing populismMore deprivation & migration

The escalation of right-wing populism, migration & climate inaction

If this dynamic or self-amplifying feedback loop became dominant, each of the changes in the loop would escalate, threatening life as we know it. Consider the changes forming this amplifying feedback loop.

Change 1: More global heating

While the Earth continues to absorb more heat from the sun than radiates back into space, the Earth will keep heating up. This heating is happening now due to very high greenhouse gas levels. For example, in May 2019, carbon dioxide levels were about 415 part per million (ppm) – and they may need to come down to below 300 ppm before global heating stops.

The planet will only “tend” to continue heating as other influences could prevent this. For example, a large comet could hit the Earth and fill the atmosphere with debris. This could stop sunlight from reaching the Earth, and the temperature would drop. Each of the causal links in this dynamic is a tendency that can be over-ridden.

Change 2: More extreme weather

More global heating tends to cause more extreme weather: extreme storms, floods, high tides, droughts, fires, heat, and occasionally extreme cold.

More heating also tends to cause more forced changes in land use. Here are some examples of this happening:

  • Flooding is forcing people off their land in Bangladesh.

(Boats pass over where our land was: Bangladesh’s climate refugees: The Guardian: Jan 2018)

  • Due to global heating, Australian winemakers are moving south to Tasmania

(As climate change bites, Tasmania raises a glass to its grape expectations: The Guardian: August 2013)

  • Six islands in the Solomon Islands have had large swathes of land washed into the sea and on two of those, entire villages were destroyed and people forced to relocate,

(Five tiny Pacific islands have disappeared due to rising seas and erosion)

  • In a part of Miami, they have raised roads and installed pumps to avoid regular flooding during high tides – but they cannot do this over all the Florida peninsula.

(Miami is racing against time to keep up with the sea-level rise: Business Insider: April 2018)

Change 3: More social and political instability

More extreme weather tends to cause more social and political instability. This can happen directly, e.g. when extreme drought leads to conflict over water. It can also happen indirectly when extreme weather compounds and magnifies existing instability.

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)

Climate change & war in Syria

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 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)

Change 4: More deprivation & migration

More instability tends to cause more deprivation. In Syria, this instability has led to massive deprivation: civil war, terrorism, repression, hunger, thirst, poverty, and homelessness.

Increased deprivation tends to lead to more migration.

There has been massive disruption within Syria, 5.6 million Syrians are currently refugees, mostly in the Middle East, and 6.2 million Syrians are displaced within Syria. The 5.6 million Syrians make up the largest part of the 68.5 million people worldwide, where violent conflict has forced people to flee their homes.

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

Change 5: Right-wing populism increases

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

  • Protection of borders,
  • Preservation of cultural identity
  • National interest dominating 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)

Change 6: Less 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)

The current refugee problem has seen a swing towards right-wing populism in many countries. As climate change continues, the number of refugees will surge, which could increase populism and limit climate action.

Change 7: The Earth continues heating

Reduced climate action will allow the continuing accumulation of heat by our planet Earth. This heating returns us to the start of the causal loop.

How can we oppose this dynamic

As climate change picks up speed, e.g. with sea rise drowning cities and displacing many people, this dynamic could become dominant and dangerous. How can we oppose this?

As right-wing populism seems to be on the rise, we need to put forward arguments that appeal to people drawn to this thinking.

It seems that global concerns and environmental concerns are not effective.

Here are two arguments that might be useful:

  • Ceasing climate action will see rapid climate change and lead to massive migration. Climate action will limit the number of people seeking refuge and so protect our borders.
  • There are economic benefits to moving to renewables, like Australia can become a renewable energy superpower.

Updated 1/6/2020