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2020 May See 50 Million ‘Environmental Refugees’

February 22, 2011

Food shortages sparked by climate change are causing southern Europe to see a sharp increase in migrants from Africa.

“When people are not living in sustainable conditions, they migrate,” claimed a speaker at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), with “environmental refugees” expected to continue flooding into the global north, AFP reports.

Fifty million “environmental refugees” will migrate by 2020, University of California, Los Angeles professor Cristina Tirado said at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Southern Europe is seeing the highest rate of migration in what has long been a slow but steady flow of migrants from Africa, many of whom risk their lives to cross the Strait of Gibraltar into Spain from Morocco or sail in makeshift vessels to Italy from Libya and Tunisia.

“The rate of migration has risen dramatically after a month of protests in Tunisia, which brought down the government of longtime ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali,” said Michigan State University professor Ewen Todd, who predicts more of the same.

“What we saw in Tunisia — a change in government and suddenly there are a whole lot of people going to Italy — this is going to be the pattern. Already, Africans are going in small droves up to Spain, Germany and wherever from different countries in the Mediterranean region, but we’re going to see many, many more trying to go north when food stress comes in. And it was food shortages that put the people of Tunisia and Egypt over the top,” Todd told AFP.

Environmental refugees were described in 2001 by Norman Myers of Oxford University as “a new phenomenon” created by climate change. “These are people who can no longer gain a secure livelihood in their homelands because of drought, soil erosion, desertification, deforestation and other environmental problems, together with the associated problems of population pressures and profound poverty,” Myers wrote in a journal of Britain’s Royal Society in 2001.

“In their desperation, these people feel they have no alternative but to seek sanctuary elsewhere, however hazardous the attempt.”

Warmer winters also allow pests and plant diseases to survive over the cold months and attack crops in the spring, soil physicist Ray Knighton of the US Department of Agriculture claimed. Increased rainfall — another result of climate change — when coupled with more fungal pathogens can “dramatically impact crop yield and quality,” said Knighton, adding that greenhouse gases and atmospheric pollutants have changed plant structures and reduced crops’ defenses to pests and pathogens.

Heavy precipitation and flooding can spread diseases carried in animal waste into the food chain. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 2.2 million deaths in developing countries are caused each year by food and water-borne diseases, panel member Sandra Hoffmann of the US Department of Agriculture writes.

And yet, the global economic crisis has pushed climate change “down in priority” on governments’ to-do lists, said Todd. “If you’re suffering economically, climate change is not going to be the first thing you fund. “Any action you take will be costly, be it in terms of prestige, economics, less oil… I think it’s going to take a real crisis to get world opinion to change,” he concludes.

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