They stream down a European freeway by the thousands, fleeing a homeland torn apart by conflict—plodding miserably across the fields of a continent currently gripped by the worst refugee crisis since World War II.
Yet for documentary filmmaker and immigration expert Sheila Murray, the Syrian refugee crisis is only a prelude.
Her film on international refugee law, No Place to Go, was made for Amnesty International Canada’s refugee program.
In a 2010 report in Refuge magazine, Murray predicted that by 2050, the world could see a mass exodus of 200 million environmental refugees fleeing homelands rendered uninhabitable by extreme weather, rising sea levels, and mega-droughts.
Is Canada ready to absorb the new climate exodus?
"The Canadian government doesn't recognize those [refugees] at all. It has made great efforts to avoid its responsibility," said Murray, who explored the subject of climate refugees for her Master's thesis just months before war broke out in Syria.
"Canada will become a manifestly desirable destination for a large diversity of people from around the globe," she said.
Green Party Leader Elizabeth May agrees. “This is just a sneak preview of the conflicts we can expect to see if the climate crisis is allowed to worsen and we fail to reduce greenhouse gas emissions globally."
Currently, refugees come to Canada in one of two ways. Either they are selected abroad to receive a permanent resident visa that allows them to enter the country, or they arrive on their own and claim protection once here.
Those chosen abroad by Canadian officials must have a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.
For those refugees who make their own way to Canada and claim protection after they arrive, leave to remain is granted if they face torture, execution or death, or ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ by returning to their home country.
Syrians fleeing civil war are technically covered under both categories. But neither category recognizes people who have fled their homeland for environmental reasons.
Future refugees directly affected by climate change, as opposed to climate-induced conflict, could be admitted to Canada relatively easily, however, if the federal government chose to act.
“The lack of provision in Canada’s current immigration system for the admission of people displaced for reasons directly related to climate change is consistent with international law, which does not recognize such people as refugees," states a 2013 Library of Parliament report. "However, if Canada decided to extend refugee-type protection to climate migrants, legislative changes would not necessarily be required. Regulatory changes or policy direction alone could suffice."
New class of refugee for hot future?
Elizabeth May is pushing for the creation of a new class of climate refugee to be included in Canada’s asylum policy.
“We have to think about the number of people who need a safe place to go from rising sea levels and other events,” said May.
Such climate events may include extreme heat waves ravaging the Persian Gulf region by the late 21st century, with temperatures of up to 60° Celsius predicted, ironically in the traditional heartland of fossil fuel extraction that is a key driver of global warming.
According to the UK Guardian, no human body can cool itself by sweating above a 'wet bulb' temperature - a combined measure of heat and humidity - of 35° C. Anyone caught unprotected in such extreme heat will die of heatstroke within six hours. The 35° limit was already reached in the Iranian port city of Bandar Mahshahr last July, when the mercury recorded a temperature of 46° with 50 per cent humidity.
However, it is climate-related floods and droughts that are the most immediate threats— as rising sea levels are already forcing people from their homes, and parched fields are helping to trigger wars that are now ripping apart the Middle East.
Bangladesh is essentially one massive floodplain centred on the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna river delta. It is land already prone to severe flooding from cyclones and monsoonal rains pushing up from the Bay of Bengal.
Nearly all of Bangladesh lies at sea level, except for a tiny sliver of hilly terrain near its eastern frontier with Myanmar. The country’s average elevation is just 10 metres above sea level.
According to a New York Times article published last year, rising sea levels will inundate 17 per cent of Bangladeshi territory by 2050 and displace 18 million people in the process, more than 10 per cent of its current population of 160 million.
An even more dire warning was sounded by climate scientist James Hansen earlier this year.
Hansen said that average global temperatures today are less than one degree cooler than they were during the last major interglacial or ‘Eemian’ period 120,000 years ago. Then, global temperatures were just 2° Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and sea levels were five to nine metres higher than today.
This means that keeping global warming at 2° – as agreed upon at Copenhagen in 2009 – is not enough to stop catastrophic flooding as ice caps melt in both Antarctica and Greenland, posing a mortal danger to Bangladesh and other low-lying regions.
“It is unlikely that coastal cities or low-lying areas such as Bangladesh, European lowlands, and large portions of the United States eastern coast, and northeast China plains could be protected against such large sea level rise,” states a report co-authored by Hansen, titled Ice Melt, Sea Level Rise and Superstorms: Evidence from Paleoclimate Data, Climate Modeling, and Modern Observations that 2°C Global Warming is Highly Dangerous.
According to one estimate cited by the New York Times, 1.5 million of Dhaka’s several million slum dwellers come from villages near the Bay of Bengal that are menaced by rising sea levels. However, the slums themselves are built on flood-prone land, and so do not present a long-term solution.
“Fast-growing urban areas like Dhaka will bear the brunt of climate change-related disasters, particularly because so many of them are located in coastal zones," states a pathwaytoparis.org report dated March 28.
"Dhaka, on the banks of the Buriganga River in the low-lying Ganges Delta, is prone to flooding during monsoons. As much as 40 per cent of Dhaka’s population — almost seven million — lives in tiny hovels in slums, beside railway tracks, along riverbanks and even on swampy lowlands in the shadow of glittering hotels.”
The only other option for Bangladeshis fleeing climate change is migrating to India, but their giant neighbour, India, is sealing off its frontier with a 4,000 km security fence aimed at stopping illegal immigration and cross-border smuggling.
Three decades before Donald Trump clamoured for a massive fence along the U.S.-Mexico border, the Indian government proposed just such a barrier along its Bangladeshi frontier, at a time when when thousands of Bangladeshis were migrating north into the Indian state of Assam in search of jobs and land. The result of this migration was ethnic violence that culminated in massacres.
"With a towering razor-wire fence and heavily armed guards who kill around 200 people every year, the fence along the India-Bangladesh border is ominous and sometimes dangerous," noted a 2007 Reuters article by Indian journalist Bappa Mujamdar.
The article notes that the fence "snakes its way through paddy fields about 140 meters (153 yards) inside India's notoriously porous border with Bangladesh," and that it has has "torn apart the lives of tens of thousands of people, cutting them off from family, friends, jobs and schools.”
There is no telling what exactly would happen if nearly 20 million Bangladeshi climate refugees hammered on India’s gates, but such a humanitarian disaster would dwarf the refugee crisis currently facing Europe.
Clamoring for home
There, as tens of thousands of Syrian war refugees stream through Turkey and the Balkans into Germany, a fortress mentality has taken hold, as wealthy EU countries struggle to handle the refugee influx. Previously open nations such as Germany and Austria are re-imposing border controls, while Hungary threw up a 108-mile fence along its southern frontier with Serbia to keep foreigners out.
Unlike India, which has been the final destination of Bangladeshi migrants since the 1980s, Hungary is merely a transit hub for refugees travelling to Germany— but the reaction of both countries has been strikingly similar.
Twelve years ago a groundbreaking Pentagon report titled An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and Its Implications for United States National Security predicted that wealthier countries would begin erecting barricades to the climate refugee exodus.
“With over 400 million people living in drier, subtropical, often over-populated and economically poor regions today, climate change and its follow-on effects pose a severe risk to political, economic, and social stability," warned the report.
"In less prosperous regions, where countries lack the resources and capabilities required to adapt quickly to more severe conditions, the problem is very likely to be exacerbated. For some countries, climate change could become such a challenge that mass emigration results as the desperate peoples seek better lives in regions such as the United States that have the resources to [deal with] adaptation."
Nearly 12 million Egyptians may also need a safe place to go if sea levels rise and drown the Nile Delta, whose dense river network provides water for the bulk of Egypt’s farmland.
A report commissioned by the Arab Forum for Environment and Development in 2010 and cited on the Green Prophet website notes that in "extreme-case scenarios" of a 5-meter rise in sea level rise, more than half the Nile Delta would experience "devastating effects." Ten major cities, including Alexandria and Port Said, would be threatened.
"Rising water would drown productive plots of agricultural lands and force about 14 per cent of the country’s population (11.5 million) to move to areas of the more densely populated areas south of the Nile Delta region."
The prediction is eerily similar to Hansen’s projection of a five- to nine-metre sea level rise, should global average temperatures rise by two degrees Celsius, but even a smaller sea level rise could prove catastrophic for Alexandria and other major cities located in the Delta.
“Forty percent of Egyptian industry is located in Alexandria alone; a 0.25 metre rise in sea level would put 60 per cent of Alexandria’s population of 4 million below sea level, as well as 56.1 per cent of Alexandria’s industrial sector," states a paper written by Khaled El-Sayed Hassan, an expert at the Egyptian Society for Migration Studies.
The report goes on to note that a half-meter sea level rise would destroy thirty percent of the city and force 1.5 million people to evacuate.
The Nile Delta was formed over millennia by silt deposition. Flat and low-lying like Bangladesh, it traditionally flooded annually, but was not subject to regular cyclones or tropical storms.
But sediment deposition and flooding stopped after the Aswan Dam was constructed upstream in 1962, meaning that the delta is now at risk of coastal erosion during a time of rising sea levels.
From 1972 – 2003, the coastline near Rosetta (Ras Rashid) retreated by three kilometres, or roughly 100 metres per year, according to the study cited by Green Prophet.
“If climate change continues unabated, it threatens to impose severe environmental devastation upon Egypt. The vast majority of the Egyptian population lives in the Nile Delta and along the thin strip of the Nile Valley while the large expanses of territory that make up the rest of the country remain almost entirely uninhabited,” states an article written by David Sterman for the Climate Institute.
As with Bangladesh, there is no way to predict how Egyptians may react to being displaced en masse by rising sea levels.
But it is possible that climate change already helped spark the 2011 revolution that ousted former President Hosni Mubarak.
According to an article in the Toronto Star from March 2013, wildfires that raged across Russia in 2010 triggered a 37-million tonne drop in grain yields, pushing up prices in Egypt and helping to spark mass protests against the government in early 2011. Drought and heatwaves parched Russian and Ukrainian farmland, a major global breadbasket.
At the same time, China was hit by a “once-in a century” winter drought that depressed global wheat supplies yet further. Other major suppliers including Canada and Australia were hit by excessive rainfall that further impacted wheat supplies worldwide.
The Pentagon report warned that weaker nations, including those in conflict with their neighbours, might well react by launching armed struggles over food, clean water, or energy supplies— with a primary goal being survival, rather than national honour or religious zealotry.
Already, both Egypt and Sudan have butted heads with Ethiopia to the south, whose plan to dam its section of the River Nile raised fears in both its northern neighbours that water supplies needed for farming would be restricted.
The dispute was resolved – for now at least – by all three nations agreeing to “fair use of waters,” in a framework agreement.
But existing regional agreements will become more strained if water availability declines as a result of climate change, according to El-Sayed Hassan’s report.
As such, the Pentagon’s warning remains clear: conflicts over land and water use "are likely to become more severe – and more violent. As states become increasingly desperate, the pressure for action will grow.”
Desperate nations are starting to fracture internally, as extreme weather and severe droughts help push huge swaths of the Middle East into a downward spiral of civil war, violent revolutions, and state failure.
The Syrian Civil War was preceded by a severe climate-related drought that lasted from 2006 – 2010. The drought turned 60 per cent of Syria's farmland into a dust bowl and wiped out 80 per cent its livestock.
As wells ran dry and crops withered, 1.5 million farmers crowded into cities — cities already swollen by 1 million Iraqis fleeing their country’s war. Destitute and desperate, these climate refugees struggled to cope with urban water shortages, unemployment, rising prices, and a lack of housing, many of them living in slums on the outskirts of Damascus and other centres.
Even before the drought hit, Syrians had to contend with Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship that routinely tortured and killed its opponents, as well as high unemployment, poverty, and a weak economy that lacked the oil wealth of Gulf Arab states.
By March 2011, the influx of climate refugees into cities contributed more instability to Syria’s powder-keg society, resulting in civil uprisings that led to full-scale war, as Assad’s flailing dictatorship lost control of towns and cities to rebel groups.
“[Climate change] is not the only factor in the Syrian Civil War. It is a factor owing to drought that young men came from villages into cities hoping to find work, then of course that creates geopolitical instability, as they were not satisfied because Bashar al-Assad’s regime was not providing support to people internally displaced in Syria because of drought,” said Elizabeth May.
But Syria is not the only Middle East battleground that suffered drought followed by war. Nearly 1,000 miles to the south, Yemen has suffered a similar fate.
In the late 2000s, drought forced thousands of people out of villages in Yemen’s al-Mahwit Governorate, more than 100 km west of the capital Sanaa, according to a May 2008 report by independent humanitarian news organization IRIN.
As in Syria, lack of rain left peasant farmers unable to grow staple crops, which in al-Mahwit included corn, coffee, fruits, and qat, a mild narcotic leaf popular in both Yemen and parts of East Africa.
By 2008, thousands of people abandoned their villages for cities as water shortages gripped the countryside, forcing people to walk for several kilometres to pick up a few litres for drinking or performing religious ablutions. Bathing or washing clothes was out of the question unless people could drive into al-Mahwit city.
Three years later, Yemen was rocked by Arab Spring protests against the autocratic government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Peaceful demonstrations soon turned violent.
Unlike al-Assad, Saleh stepped down in exchange for immunity from prosecution and was allowed to stay in Yemen as part of a power transition deal—though after leaving office he was suspected of stirring up Shia Muslim Houthi rebels.
Seven years after the drought, Yemen is now in the grip of a full-scale civil war, as the Iranian-backed Houthis fight against the country’s internationally recognized government, which enjoys military and political backing from both Saudi Arabia and the West.
Currently the Houthis maintain their stronghold in western Yemen, including the al-Mahwit region, against forces loyal to Yemen’s current government.
“When you have extreme climate events like drought and people in poorer countries can’t feed themselves, then you have more political unrest,” said May. “You end up in a cascade.”
A cascade of unrest and revolt sparked by climate change could lead to societal collapse, civil war, and the destruction of states — Yale historian Timothy Snyder argues in his book, Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning.
In World War II, Snyder writes, certain Eastern European and Baltic countries experienced "double state destruction," in which their governments were first assaulted by the Soviet Union and then by Germany. The absence of state power allowed a vacuum in which mass murders became possible, as genocide sprang up in the landscapes of crushed states.
“The Holocaust spread insofar as states were weakened, but no further. Where political structures held, they provided support and means to people who wished to help Jews,” said Snyder in his Sept. 16 article in the UK Guardian based on his book.
Seventy years later, states are failing once more, at least partially as a result of extreme climate. Chronic drought is triggering civil uprisings over access to food, water and shelter. Ultimately, these conditions can weaken and even destroy a state as thoroughly as any foreign invasion.
Climate change followed by war caused a collapse of conventional state authority in Syria, as militias have assumed control of large areas.
In this chaos, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) — which has its roots in the U.S.-led Iraq War that began in 2003— has flourished. ISIS has chilling parallels to Nazism, as it seeks to restore a mythic past by carving out territory for an exclusively Muslim ‘caliphate.’ Its black-clad stormtroopers chase out Christians, menace Shia Muslims, torture and murder enemies, and are attempting an all-out genocide against the Yezidi minority in northern Iraq.
Indeed, harrowing videos of ISIS terrorists massacring Iraqi government soldiers and civilians in open pits are all too similar to German atrocities on the Eastern Front when untold numbers of Jews and Slavs were shot to death in open pits.
While neither the war in Syria nor ISIS itself can be attributed to climate change, Snyder warns that global warming can play a significant role in the "double state destruction" that may yet push humanity back into a world of war, genocide, and outright hatred of the ‘other.’
"I think the potential for really nasty stuff is a reality," said filmmaker Sheila Murray, who warned that xenophobia is already on a worldwide upswing as increasing numbers of refugees flee Syria and other conflict zones.
However, she predicts that the vast majority of refugees would likely stay within their home regions, even though more chaos would ensue if agricultural networks collapsed, as happened in Syria.
As war rages in Syria, the first seeds of wheat, barley, and grasses have been withdrawn from a ‘doomsday vault’ nearly 5,000 km away on the Arctic island of Svalbard, to replace those in a ‘gene bank’ near the war-torn city of Aleppo, according to a Sept. 21 Reuters article.
"Protecting the world's biodiversity in this manner is precisely the purpose of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault," Crop Trust spokesperson Brian Lainoff told Reuters. It is his organization who runs the Arctic seed bank.
Before war broke out, Aleppo’s vault contained a seed bank that distributed drought-resistant grains across the Middle East. Seeds from the Aleppo centre may help crops survive climate change in drier regions such as Australia, Africa, or indeed Syria itself.
Despite war raging nearby, the vault, run by the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA) is still operational, but it is no longer a growing and distribution hub for the region.
ICARDA, which relocated to Beirut after war began, wants almost 130 boxes out of 325 it had deposited in the Svalbard vault, containing a total of 116,000 samples.
Such seeds may also be needed by Australia, which as the world’s driest continent is in desperate need of more water-efficient farming.
The country is already pushing forward with a pioneering new program of market water trading and cross-state co-operation, a model that was first rolled out in 2012 after a major 14-year drought.
The market trade system sees the government buying water to keep the river healthy, and farmers buying it to irrigate crops in lean years or during the hot summer season. It also creates opportunities for investors.
"All of these lessons are appropriate to the United States," said Professor David Feldman, water policy expert at the University of California in Irvine in a Reuters interview. His state is suffering from a four-year drought that has played havoc with farming and helped spark major wildfires.
In Australia, the Murray-Darling basin’s waterways have been ruined by years of siphoning off water for irrigation, drying out wetlands, increasing salinity and acid soils, and creating toxic algae that are a public health menace.
Given such conditions, the water trade program was welcomed at first, but recent dry weather has depleted stores and pushed up prices, prompting lawmakers to give farmers subsidies for conserving water.
Despite its recent difficulties, the program still offers a model for overriding fragmented water management and gaining public input on how best to save water in times of drought.
Fight to get climate on agenda
As the world experiences repeated climate catastrophes, the Canadian government under Stephen Harper's Conservatives remained tin-eared for a decade to the looming threat of climate change.
Canada seems to be changing course under Justin Trudeau, whose incoming Liberal government has pledged greater federal support for renewable energy, and is vowing to play a more constructive role at the Paris climate talks— inviting both provincial leaders and his federal political opponents to join his delegation.
Trudeau has also promised to admit 25,000 Syrian war refugees into Canada, a more generous offer than his predecessor.
But the issue of climate refugees was not once mentioned during the election campaign.
"This debate touched on climate, but never talked about the urgency," said Elizabeth May in a Twitter video, forcing her way into a debate she was locked out of. "Well, it is urgent. The deadline for the new treaty is December, and we have to be ready.”
Canada still has a long way to go before shaking off its reputation as a climate rogue under Harper. Trudeau has not committed to any Paris-specific greenhouse gas emissions reduction target, nor did climate change feature prominently in any of the leaders debates before the federal election.
“Getting climate change on the agenda is going to be very difficult,” said May.