The loss of life and economic chaos wrought by COVID-19 serves as a forewarning for how the world might cope with mass migration as a result of climate change. The inevitable emergence of climate migration poses a great risk to many nations, and, now more than ever, governments and international institutions must begin contingency planning.
The world’s failure to effectively react to a rapidly spreading virus offers a grim outlook for its ability to collectively prepare for climate migration, but the consequences of inaction have never been clearer. The distinction between COVID-19 and climate change is that flattening the curve for the latter will require decades of consistent action rather than mere weeks.
The economic chaos and rising death toll of COVID-19 highlights the need for stagnant national security agendas to prioritize outbreaks of disease, climate change, and mass migration. However, even as the world hit 1 million COVID-19 infections, prominent voices in the U.S. national security community remained focused on other threats.
On April 1, U.S. President Donald J. Trump tweeted that “Iran or its proxies are planning a sneak attack on U.S. troops and/or assets in Iraq.” On the same day, David Petraeus warned of a “clear and present danger of another September 11–like attack” if the United States does not commit to remaining in Afghanistan indefinitely. Meanwhile, the Trump administration announced plans to rollback regulations that force automakers to produce fuel-efficient cars.
What is the cost of this myopic focus on counterterrorism and short-term economic gains at the expense of all other threats? Climate change is deceptively gradual to the casual observer but once it surpasses the point of no return, it will lead to vast population displacement. An era of climate migration will push people from vulnerable coastal lowlands to densely populated cities deeper in the interior.
The victims will include island nations such as the Maldives, coastal ports like Miami, and cities with depleting groundwater reserves such as Lahore. Governments will be forced to manage the displaced and without preexisting plans and resources they will flounder.
The ability of governments to restrict and direct population movements to curtail the spread of COVID-19 is the most challenging task faced by both developing and developed nations. In Italy, a government decree declaring a ban on movement was leaked to the media shortly before taking effect and spurred pockets of the northern population to overwhelm train stations and highways in an attempt to “escape” to the south. In the U.S., New Yorkers fled the state as COVID-19 rapidly spread and Spring Break travelers openly flouted guidance to stay home.
The European single market is on its knees, the UK government conducts an about face on its COVID-19 testing strategy on a near daily basis, Trump is pushing for “business as usual,” and the global economy is in its darkest period since the Great Depression. When India announced a robust 21-day lockdown to slow the virus, it offered no plan for migrant workers left far from home. This has resulted in a caravan of thousands of workers traversing hundreds of miles of highway and a growing deaths.
Amid the hysteria, some communities have allegedly denied migrants access to food while passing through. In Pakistan and northern India, a Muslim movement known as Tablighi Jamaat dismissed government warnings and refused to cease congregational activities amid the outbreak leading to a surge of infections. “Through contact tracing in different states, we have found 400 coronavirus cases, whose epidemiological linkage can be traced to the Tablighi Jamaat cluster,” said Lav Aggarwal who serves as Joint Secretary, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. In India, this has led to an increase in already dismal communal tensions.
The rapid spread of the virus is testing the ability of countries to weather an unexpected public health and economic crisis, but what about the looming threat of climate change and the mass exodus of people that will follow?
There is no shortage of reports that call on the international community to assist the world’s most vulnerable populations, but few tangible steps are taken to mitigate the susceptibility of refugee camps and the communities that host them to pandemics much less climate change.
Currently, there are no internationally recognized conventions that address climate migrants, therefore governments do not have firm guidelines to follow. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) addressed concerns regarding forced displacement resulting from “natural disasters and environmental degradation” in the Global Compact on Refugees, however it stops short of addressing the elephant in the room: a permanent influx of millions of refugees due to irreversible climate change.
The definition of refugee and the notion of non-refoulement needs clarifying before the negative consequences of climate change are permitted to fester, thus it is important for world leaders to come together and agree on creating a binding legal framework addressing what qualifies. In the absence of a virus, large population movements may not present the same public health risks as COVID-19, but the economic, housing, and logistical fallout could prove equally overwhelming. Governments should adapt their national security policy to plan for mass displacement sooner rather than later.
The worldwide response to COVID-19 serves as an example of the cost of reactive governance. Italy’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak should have provided the world with enough time to secure populations and avoid a death toll measured in the tens of thousands. However, as of April 1, the U.S. broke the record in reported deaths in one day due to COVID-19. Italy should have served as a canary in the coal mine rather than a realized premonition.
Similarly in 2014, President of Kiribati Anote Tong stated that the fate of his country, a low-lying atoll nation heavily impacted by coastal erosion, was sealed, as they are the “canary and that experience will send a very strong message that we might be on the front line today, but others will be on the front line next.” However, nations have yet to create and implement strategies to assist climate migration once it occurs.
In 2015, then U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry warned, “You think migration is a challenge to Europe today because of extremism, wait until you see what happens when there’s an absence of water, an absence of food or one tribe fighting against another for mere survival.” Rather than waiting to find out, governments should work together to form an international convention addressing climate migration.
Learning from the recent experience of the EU, where nations struggled to reach an agreement to release funds to assist Italy, an international dedicated fund should be established for nations to draw upon when they must assist or absorb the forcibly displaced. The international community must join forces to create incentives for countries to create hosting communities in case of climate migration. Existing intergovernmental forums such as the Arctic Council should be put into overdrive in an effort to tackle black carbon and other leading causes of climate change, and observer states like India and China should be given greater responsibilities.
Nations that face mutual threats from climate change, water shortages, and mass migration such as India and Pakistan must establish climate-focused diplomacy through the help of third-country mediators. Lastly, the national security policies of individual countries should be updated to incorporate climate change and specifically address contingency plans for mass migration.
Pierfilippo M. Natta holds an LLM from Duke University, School of Law and has worked with refugees in Myanmar. Adam Weinstein holds a JD and is a researcher who focuses on South Asia and Iran.