Written for The Telegraph.
What is a climate refugee? Not those enviable people who can afford to flee to Kenya to escape the British winter. Quite the reverse. They are the poor wretches who, we are told with increasing stridency, are already fleeing Africa to escape climate change and will reach European shores in an ever-rising tide as the world warms.
Conjuring up fear of being swamped by alien hordes used to be a right-wing trope. A century ago, populists invoked the spectre of the “Yellow Peril” flooding in from Asia. Now it is the Left who warn us of the flood of refugees driven by climate change which, they say, will become a tsunami as the world warms.
The notion of climate refugees appeals to the Left since it combines their two favourite themes – migration and climate change. It can be used to justify both opening our borders and controlling every aspect of the economy to attain Net Zero.
Because, in the Left’s favourite phrase, “it’s our fault”. The Guardian’s Owen Jones claims that “many of the world’s poorest will be forced to flee their homes because of the actions of the world’s richest”. So, we must decarbonise our economies whatever the cost. And we must accept the influx of climate refugees we have supposedly caused.
But is climate change the cause of the rising tide of refugees? When I worked on development programmes in Africa half a century ago, almost no-one I met, even in the poorest village or slum, dreamt of migrating to Europe. Yet people then were much poorer, their lives much shorter and their homes and livelihoods far more vulnerable to extreme weather.
So why do ever increasing numbers cross the Mediterranean in small boats? Climate change provides a plausible and, for the Left, attractive explanation. Migrants must be escaping more frequent and severe climate disasters.
Not so, according to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which assesses the scientific evidence and forecasts. It concludes that, though average and extreme temperatures have increased and will rise further, “evidence is lacking… of climate impact drivers of… floods, droughts, landslides, storms or fire weather”. Moreover, even on the most extreme future scenario, IPCC scientists do not expect increasing incidence of these disasters to emerge before 2050 (except increased precipitation). Confronted with the text of this authoritative report on the science, climate alarmists appear to simply reject its inconvenient conclusions.
Although weather extremes were as frequent in the past as now (though reported less), people in poor countries were far more vulnerable to them. But as living standards have risen, homes become less flimsy, infrastructure improved – deaths from environmental disasters in Africa and elsewhere have declined by nearly three quarters since 1970. Of course, disasters still occur, living standards are much lower than in the developed world, and African life expectancy (up from 46 years in 1970 to 64 now) is still below ours.
The real reason migration has risen is not deteriorating climate. Nor worsening poverty. Paradoxically, it is the reverse. Rising living standards mean that more people can afford the large sums needed to pay the people smugglers. Above all, the ubiquitous mobile phone means even in the remotest village in Africa or Asia people can see how much higher living standards are in Europe and America and communicate with compatriots who have already made the journey.
So, even though most weather disasters are forecast to be no more frequent in future, the number of would-be economic migrants – not climate refugees – will grow as people become less poor. Western governments will struggle to prevent or deter them from coming. The migration lobby will claim they are not economic migrants but are all fleeing persecution, war or climate.
Potential numbers will only subside once incomes approach those in the developed world. Achieving that rapidly will require abundant, cheap and reliable energy to fuel growth. Where renewables are cheapest, they will be adopted. But in most circumstances, at present, fossil fuels provide reliable power far cheaper than renewables. Nonetheless, eco-warriors who claim to sympathise with the poor will do all they can to stop developing countries using fossil fuels – even if it means condemning them to remain poor longer. After all, what they really seem to want is to “degrow” the rich West, not grow the poor South.