Climate change often evokes images of powerful hurricanes and rising sea levels, which is perfectly understandable. What often falls by the wayside, though, is the fact that this anthropogenic phenomenon could trigger an entirely new refugee crisis, one that may see up to 2 billion people escape its ravages by the end of the century.
Now, a new study in Science has attempted to estimate the number of climate refugees that will seek asylum in the European Union (EU). By 2100, under a fast-warming scenario wherein emissions continue to rise – a “business-as-usual” future – the EU will see a 188 percent rise in applications.
That’s 660,000 additional applications per year, a not insignificant number. From the turn of the millennium until now, about 351,000 people per year from 103 countries sought asylum in the EU. This means that if nothing is done to stop climate change, then a tripling of asylum seekers could occur, which may spark a refugee crisis of unprecedented proportions.
Even under a slower warming scenario, in which emissions begin to decline across the world, those seeking asylum from climate change-linked extreme weather events will increase by around 28 percent – which equates to around 98,000 extra asylum seekers per year.
This study, penned by a pair of researchers from the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, is based on a relatively simple calculation. Their efforts largely focus on nations whose economies are still fairly agrarian in nature.
Although this fluctuates from country to country, the authors suggest that – based on pre-existing data – a moderate optimum temperature of 20°C (68°F) is required for agriculture to thrive. Any higher (or lower) and this begins to falter; crops cannot adjust or keep up.
An analysis of past asylum seeker information revealed that a correlation existed between deviations from this optimum and the number of people seeking asylum to the EU. Significantly, the team found that as the mercury rose beyond this optimum, the number of asylum seekers from these countries didn't just increase; they also accelerated.
Assuming that no other factors play a role in this regard, the researchers simply extrapolated this trend to 2100 based on various global warming scenarios.