Written by France 24

The delegation of Syria is active during the unmoderated caucus in the meeting of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. “We need to treat the millions of people who are displaced now,” the delegation told me, “but also all the millions of people who will be displaced later for actions that are, you know, not tangible.”

These intangible actions are climate change, and Syria understands the toll that it can have on human conflict: the country has been mired in a Civil War that has left over 100,000 civilians dead since 2011. Drought caused by climate change was a large contributing factor to the conflict, and as the UNHCR aims to create a legal definition for those displaced by climate disaster, Syria works to remind delegates of the effects climate change has on political climate.

Climate change has been widely accepted by the international community as the most significant challenge to human survival and flourishing. While the Earth’s climate has fluctuated at various points in its history, human activity has led to a dramatic increase of carbon emissions in the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution.

These emissions have had dramatic consequences including extreme weather, rising sea levels, and diminished Arctic ice sheets. According to a landmark 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, global warming must be limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius in order to prevent sea level rise, coral reef destruction, and ice sheet loss.

Few have examined, however, the dramatic sociopolitical consequences of climate change and subsequent migration. As temperatures rise and extreme weather events become more common, resources become scarcer, leading to widespread migration and the potential for conflict.

In a comprehensive review of 60 quantitative articles published in Science, scientists found strong evidence that climate events led to human conflict, with intergroup conflict occurring 14 per cent more frequently in areas with warmer than average temperatures or more extreme precipitation patterns.

Syria knows these consequences better than any.  The Syrian Civil War was preceded by a severe drought, and a 2015 study argued that the drought drove farmers to cities, leading to clashes that helped create the war. The drought could not be accounted for by natural changes in wind and rain, leaving climate change as the likely culprit. “We’ve had 5.2 million people who have fled the country,” the delegation described, “and 6.2 million who have been displaced internally.”

Climate change helped to create these refugees, and millions have found temporary status in countries such as Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq. Others have successfully sought asylum in the United States and European countries. However, they have not sought refugee status under environmental grounds because the 1951 Refugee Convention does not give credence to environmental causes of migration.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is aiming to change this, yet the body has not yet been able to come to a consensus on a new definition. The German delegation has proposed dividing persons displaced by climate change into two categories determined by urgency: climate refugees and environmental migrants.

Climate refugees would be those individuals affected by natural disasters most immediately in need of help, such as those displaced in the wake of a hurricane. Environmental migrants would be those internally displaced but not yet in need of immediate relocation. Yet the German delegation did not specify how to determine the individual urgency of a case, despite the fact that the South African delegation previously had called for specificity.

A drought, the South African delegation contended, is not the same as a hurricane, yet both are extreme weather events affected by climate change. How would these be weighed differently?

The body has assumed that the sociopolitical consequences of climate change would be covered by their change in definition. “By making a definition for climate refugees, by including them in the 1951 Refugee Convention, that just means that they have the same protections as those persecuted by war,” the delegation of Canada responded when asked about how the two definitions would interact. Yet the response on how to ease human conflict arising from climate change was far more ambiguous.

“I’m working on a resolution with others from Haiti to Syria as well as other countries about how to get governments to cooperate with each other in terms of natural disasters… I think that would be able to ease human conflict, where countries would be able to ease climate disasters and help one another,” the delegation reported, without specifics.

Countries like Syria, however, cannot afford to wait longer for specifics. “Maybe we can be the guinea pig for a lot of these issues,” the Syrian delegation told me when asked about ways to respond to human conflict caused by climate change. “We want to work on water accessibility, we want to work on having clean water, desalination. Maybe we can be the guinea pig for a lot of these issues.”