Brexit was triggered by climate-driven collapse in the Middle East
Source: ITV

Brexit was triggered by climate-driven collapse in the Middle East

Climate-denying Brexiteers will trigger the next migrant crisis. This is how climate change is unravelling democracy and propelling the authoritarian turn in Britain, Europe and beyond

  • Nafeez M Ahmed
8 min read
Nafeez M Ahmed

Brexit, the resurgence of the far-right, and the danger of a coming collapse of the European Union, have all escalated on the back of a global migrant crisis that was fuelled by climate change. But if this resurgent right gets it way, climate change will not only escalate, it will make Brexit mayhem look like a cake walk.

Three years ago, a majority of British voters chose to leave the European Union (EU) — and in so doing set the clock ticking for the EU’s very future. The vote was won by a narrow majority of 51.9 percent.

But it was really a minority that pushed Britain down this rocky road. As 27.8 percent of the electorate did not turn out to vote, in reality only 37 percent of the electorate actually voted Leave.

All Leave voters are obviously not racist. Yet there can be no doubt that the ‘Leave’ campaign was notoriously xenophobic, leveraging rising anti-immigrant sentiment. That sentiment in turn was triggered by an unprecedented spike in migration to Europe from the Middle East and North Africa.

That migration spike was triggered by a sequence of devastating regional conflicts which have yet to end. A range of scientific studies prove that both climate change and energy depletion played instrumental causal roles in those conflicts, along with other critical factors, serving to amplify their impacts.

Instead of recognising this stark reality and working to address the systemic causes of the Earth System crisis underpinning this deadly sequence of events, politicians in Britain and Europe are now caught up in a futile death spiral around the question of Brexit, the symptom.

Brexit was just the beginning.

New research from the European Council on Foreign Relations, confirming my own reporting two years ago, has warned that far-right anti-EU parties are now on course to win a third of seats in the European Parliament in elections this May. That would give them sufficient clout to block or veto EU legislation, block approval of the EU budget and essentially erode the EU from within.

Britain’s Brexit vote had, essentially, let the far-right genie out of the bottle. And it is not going to go back in.

Fear of Them

Days before the Brexit vote, a YouGov poll found that 56 percent of Britons believed that “immigration and asylum” were the top issues facing the nation. By late 2018, that figure had dropped to 27 percent.

At the time, Europe was experiencing a massive surge in migration from countries like Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya and beyond, many of whom attempted to cross into the UK via Europe. Simultaneously, Britain was experiencing a wage of immigration from Eastern Europe.

Anxieties over immigration played a pivotal role in the Leave vote, rather than merely a breakdown in trust with incumbent politicians. A 2017 British Social Attitudes survey found that nearly three-quarters (73 per cent) of people who express concerns about immigration also voted Leave.

The Leave campaign frequently resorted to racist and xenophobic tactics to leverage this sentiment in its favour, with a particular low-point coming in the form of a poster depicting thousands of refugees crossing the Croatia-Slovenia border in 2015.

The words “BREAKING POINT” were emblazoned across the picture, above a line that read: “We must break free of the EU and take back control of our borders.”

Yet according to a new study published in February, the massive migration to Europe that preceded the Brexit vote was brought on by the impacts of climate change.

Climate migrants

The new paper published in the journal Global Environmental Change found that climate change played a significant role in migration and asylum seeking from 2011 to 2015, by creating severe droughts which drove and exacerbated conflicts:

“Our results indicate that climatic conditions, by affecting drought severity and the likelihood of armed conflict, played a significant role as an explanatory factor for asylum seeking in the period 2011–2015.”

According to co-author Dr Raya Muttarak, a senior lecturer in geography and international development at the University of East Anglia: “The effect of climate on conflict occurrence is particularly relevant for countries in Western Asia in the period 2010–2012, when many were undergoing political transformation during the so-called Arab Spring uprisings.”

The paper explains climate change laid the groundwork for the simmering tensions which led to the outbreak of war in Syria. Long-running droughts and water shortages caused by climate change led to repeated crop failures, driving the mass migration of rural families into urban areas.

Overcrowding, ethnic and sectarian tensions, and unemployment boiled over into political unrest. The study also noted similar patterns in sub-Saharan Africa in the same time period.

Several other studies have highlighted how climate change triggered the unrest and conflict that erupted across the region since the Arab Spring. As I reported for The Guardian in 2013, the Arab Spring was triggered by food price shocks which were, in turn, driven by a series of climate shocks leading to droughts and extreme weather crises across the world’s major food basket regions.

It wasn’t just the external impact of food price spikes which set the region aflame. It was also poor governance and the declining resilience of Arab states, which made them especially vulnerable.

Many Arab Spring countries from Syria to Egypt to Yemen had slashed subsidies for food and fuel in preceding years, largely due to the collapse of state revenues — many of them had been former major oil exporters, but in the mid-1990s had experienced peaks of their domestic conventional oil resources. As production thus declined, so did export revenues.

With subsidies in the years before 2011 disappearing, coupled with global price spikes, prices of staple foods in these countries rocketed. As the price of bread became unaffordable, people across the region hit the streets. And the rest is history.

Future Fortress Europe

Yet this is not just history. It is a taste of our future on a business-as-usual trajectory.

Even if we change course considerably and stay within global average temperatures of 2 degrees Celsius (C)— the supposedly safe upper limit for climate change — certain climate changes due to existing concentrations of greenhouse gases are already locked in.

According to a recent study in Climatic Change, parts of the Middle East and North Africa will inevitably become uninhabitable by 2050 as these locked in changes unfold, leading to intense summer heatwaves and droughts.

The unliveable temperatures will likely exacerbate the risk of regional conflict and spark further mass migrations toward Western shores.

“In future, the climate in large parts of the Middle East and North Africa could change in such a manner that the very existence of its inhabitants is in jeopardy,” said study co-author Jos Lelieveld, Director at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry.

“Prolonged heat waves and desert dust storms can render some regions uninhabitable, which will surely contribute to the pressure to migrate.”

Unfortunately, this risk is not on the radar for policymakers. Bob Ward, policy director at the the London School of Economics’ ESRC Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy, points out that the ‘summary for policymakers’ document prepared by the UN’s climate panel (IPCC) makes no mention at all of the coming intensification of climate catastrophe across the Middle East, and what it might mean for Europe.

But the import is that Earth System disruption has ushered in a brave new world in which the political structures of Western Europe, which sustained intergovernmental peace and security within the continent since the Second World War, can no longer be taken for granted.

Over the next 30 years, Europe will transform. As sporadic spikes in migration pressures occur in coming years thanks to intensifying climate crisis, the far-right will find further opportunities to mainstream their ideas and destroy the fundamentals of the liberal democratic project, in the false name of making things ‘great again’.

But the vision that Eurosceptic and far-right movements offer is one that will lead, if it is followed through, inevitably to a resurgent authoritarianism.

Take Jacob Rees-Mogg MP, the Conservative Party’s doyen of Brexit. As I reported six years ago, Rees-Mogg condemns “climate alarmism” while simultaneously demanding greater support for fracking and even coal. Yet he personally benefits from such policies.

As a founding partner at Somerset Capital Management (SCM), a global asset management fund where he currently works as a macro specialist, Rees-Mogg profits from investments in Big Oil, including some of its largest holdings such as the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) and Russi’s OJSC Rosneft Oil Company.

Jacob Rees-Mogg and the Brexiteering ideologues he works with want a Britain that is free from the restraints of any external regulation. This is not to empower working people, or to put an end to austerity — far from it. It is to empower a very particular cohort of big City financiers like himself, who aspire to turn Westminster into a playing ground for British banking and energy lobby groups connected to his own friends and networks.

But this is a vision which can only result in a weak, impoverished and authoritarian Britain, amidst a fragmented Europe. It is a vision which entails rampant climate denialism at precisely the time when we require urgent, systemic transformation.

This is a vision which seeks to maximise fossil fuel exploitation — ignoring evidence of the declining resource quality and steepening production costs of oil, gas and coal, while pursuing extreme deregulation and privatisation designed to concentrate wealth in the hands of a few: while simultaneously promoting forms of parochial white nationalism, erecting unflinchingly draconian population controls that, at worst, threaten the citizenship of non-white citizens with foreign ancestry on shaky legal grounds.

This vision would meanwhile guarantee the escalation of climate catastrophe, resource depletion and the collapse of biodiversity, magnifying global crises that would only intensify the impacts on Europe, including costs in terms of migration pressures.

Brexit or no Brexit, the question of being ‘in’ or ‘out’ of Europe has become a fatal distraction which draws attention away from the Earth system crisis that is accelerating right now, and which requires a response right now.

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Ultimately, if we are concerned about mass migration, we have little choice but to face up to the fact that it is a symptom of a deepening ecological crisis that is a direct consequence of the way our societies function today.

Burying our heads in the sand, shouting the odds, blaming foreigners, complaining about the bureaucratic tyranny of the EU, and pulling up the drawbridge, is not going to change this. What it will do is change the very fabric of our societies and set us on a path toward the termination of democracy as we know it: a far-right dream come true.

The other alternative is to grow up, face reality, and get to work on rapidly pushing through the wide-ranging social, economic, and cultural transformations necessary to end our dependence on fossil fuels, draw-down carbon emissions, and to begin the task of repairing the damage we’ve done and healing the planet. That is the only true path to prosperity, freedom and stability. Anything else is little more than the madness of self-delusion.

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