Although the popular image of climate migrants involves poor people in poor countries, Europeans are increasingly being pushed out of their homes and forced to move by the consequences of global warming.

This was one of the messages of a recent webinar on the climate emergency and migration.

The EEB, in collaboration with Youth and Environment Europe (YEE), recently held, in the context of the EU-backed #ClimateOfChange project, a webinar on climate change and migration.

The online panel debate, which was moderated by YEE’s Elisha Winckel, brought together experts in the field to paint a clear picture of the reality of this complex and multifaceted issue, as well as to dispel some common and damaging fallacies.

Caroline Zickgraf, the co-founder of the Hugo Observatory at the University of Liège, spoke about the politics of migration-related terminology and the scaremongering and mythmaking that has led to restrictive immigration policies that are hurting people affected by global warming.

Mariam Traore Chazalnoel, a senior expert at the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), found it encouraging that climate migration was receiving more attention from the international community but this has not yet translated into action. She believes, however, that young people’s involvement could “transform the narrative into one that is more hopeful and aspirational”.

Vanishing worlds

One area of confusion relates to where climate migration occurs. It is true that societies that did the least to create the climate emergency are often on the frontline of global warming and are most vulnerable to the consequences of climate change.

This was highlighted by Lucie Pélissier, the co-president of CliMates International, an organisation that strives to raise awareness about climate-induced migration. She developed a documentary on climate-driven migration that focused on the factors behind this phenomenon and how it affects youth.

“When we started this project, we realised that there were not a lot of stories on environmental migration,” Pélissier claimed. “Most of the time, when we were talking about the phenomenon it remained a bit abstract.” She and her colleagues decided that they needed to show and understand the human story by letting migrants on the climate change frontline in Bangladesh and Senegal speak for themselves.

In Bangladesh, a low-lying and populous country threatened by rising sea levels, Kutubdia island, which has one of the fastest recorded sea level rises has lost half its territory to the ocean over the past half century, is a harbinger of what is to come. Although the villagers, proud fisherfolk, have a negligible carbon footprint, they have been forced to abandon their way of life and to migrate inland.

Spreading like wildfire

However, that does not mean that wealthy societies are somehow immune. Although they have more resources to deal with the fallout, many rich, industrialised nations are also being ravaged by global warming.

This can be seen in the devastation that was wrought by wildfires in America this year, including the rare sight of autumn blazes so intense that they blocked visibility.

That is not to mention the ‘Black Summer’ of 2019/20 in Australia. The Australian bushfires alone not only caused the death of hundreds of millions of creatures, including the (near) extinction of many species, it also destroyed thousands of homes and displaced many people.

Europe, too, is growing increasingly prone to climate change. This was highlighted by Marta Rodríguez and Lillo Montalto, two journalists who produced a series of reports for Euronews on the impact of the climate crisis on people’s lives in Europe.

“There is a lot of talk about climate migrants, or climate refugees, coming to Europe, say, from Africa or Asia,” explained Rodríguez. “We wanted to know if there were already European climate migrants and, if that was the case, where could we find them.”

And find them the Euronews team did. “Almost 700,000 [Europeans] have been displaced in the last 10 years. That means 700,000 stories of loss in our continent,” described Lillo Montalto. “We didn’t want to make climate a far away story and Europe just the recipient of migrants. We wanted to change the perspective on that story.”

This number is a significant underestimation. It counts only people displaced by wildfires, storms and floods. Moreover, not only are statistics sparse on direct climate migration inside Europe, hardly any exist on people displaced by long-term environmental change, such as recurring droughts, or those who indirectly displaced by climate change, by losing their livelihoods or being plunged into poverty due to environmental changes.

Perfect storm

In the course of their investigation, Rodriguez and Montalto found that though climate change-induced extreme weather tended to hurt the poorest hardest, it could also devastate affluent communities too.

This occurred, for example, in La Faute-sur-Mer on France’s Atlantic coast. In 2010, the well-to-do coastal resort was hit by Xynthia, a powerful storm accompanied by surging seas. A century ago, a storm of this magnitude would not have caused devastation but rising sea levels meant that it resulted in widespread flooding, claiming the lives of 29 of the town’s residents.

Unlike victims of global warming in poor countries, the 1,000 people who lost their homes were offered compensation by the French state to rehouse. Around 400 decided to leave the town for good.

Nevertheless, the emotional trauma and scars of losing homes or loved ones are the same everywhere. Some survivors lost more than one member of their family. Elizabeth, who had retired in La Faute-Sur-Mer, watched her husband drown in the deluge before her eyes and her baby grandson died of hypothermia in her arms. Ahmed, an intensive care doctor who had recently bought a plot of land in the town, lost his mother, wife and sons, Ismaël and Camil. Only his daughter survived.

Watershed moments

One of those stories is that of Ion Sandu from Moldova. A decade ago, devastating flooding caused by global warming hit his village Cotul Morii, forcing the army to evacuate the residents. Deciding that the village had become too risky for human habitation, the government constructed a new settlement by the same name where it encouraged the residents to move.

However, Sandu, who is in his late 80s, and some other residents did not like the new purpose-built village and felt nostalgic for their homes, so they moved back, even though Cotul Morii had officially been wiped off the map and cut off from public services and infrastructure.

“How do you leave such a beautiful house?” Sandu asked, referring to the family home built of solid acacia wood in which he was born, raised, married and lived with his late wife. “This is my dad’s house. I was a child here. I was born here,” he told Euronews.

Moldova is not only one of the poorest places in Europe, its population is also among the most vulnerable to climate change. And it is not just extreme flooding the predominantly rural population must endure.

Droughts are also becoming more common and devastating. Between 1990 and 2015, Moldova suffered 11 droughts, according to the UN. In 2012 alone, drought caused the country’s tiny economy €1 billion in losses.

This is helping cause a major population drain. Moldova’s population was 4.5 million inhabitants in the early 1990s, it fell to 2.7 million in 2019. While a low fertility is one factor in this drop, the emigration of hundreds of thousands of Moldavians has also played a significant role.

No statistics exist on what role climate change plays in the decision of Moldavians to depart their homeland, with most citing poverty and low incomes as their motivator.

However, digging deeper, we can infer that the country’s increasingly inhospitable climate has an influence on migration decisions. This is reflected, for example, in the fact that nearly 70% of Moldavians who moved abroad migrated from rural areas, i.e. the regions devastated by flooding and drought.

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