A Record Number of Refugees Are Suffering in Record Heat

The hotter it gets, the more destabilized the world will become—and the more displacement and suffering we'll see.

Jun 29 2014, 1:00pm
Refugees from Syria's civil war. Image: Wikimedia

Earlier this week, a third major climate agency confirmed that humanity had just endured the hottest May ever. A fourth is predicting that June 2014 will likely be the warmest in recorded history, too. Here's another record that was revealed to have been broken this month: There is now a higher number of refugees and displaced people, worldwide, than has ever been documented before; well over 50 million

The continued exodus of Syrians from their war-torn nation drove the spike: 2.5 million had become refugees in other nations by the end of 2013, and another 6.5 million had been displaced within their own country. Syrians now make up one-fourth of neighboring Lebanon's population. Thanks to the ISIS-driven crisis that has exploded in Iraq, too, millions more people are being uprooted. And all of this is unfolding in temperatures much hotter than average, in a region that's already notoriously hot.

There's already evidence that climate change helped fuel the conflict in Syria. Drought and poor crop yields was one factor among many that helped breed the mass discontent that eventually erupted in nationwide revolution and civil war. Now, global warming is continuing to punish those most impacted by the conflict, by cranking up the heat. 

Temperatures have indeed been much hotter than average in the Middle East this year. According to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, just about the entire region was classified as "Much Warmer Than Average" for the March-May period, while much of Iraq and bits of Syria saw record-high temperatures. 

Image: NOAA

In line with global warming's habit of punishing the most vulnerable populations, other refugee-laden regions saw record heat too, such as the conflict-stressed area near the Golden Triangle, an opium-producing hotbed. Thailand's border is riddled with refugee camps, where Burmese have sought shelter for decades, after fleeing the violently oppressive ruling junta.

I've been to one of those camps, and it was an abject, malarial place. Tens of thousands of people were cramped together in mud-pocked makeshift housing, with limited access to medical treatment, and totally exposed to the elements. Like the heat.

There are 16.7 million refugees in such situations, and 35 million more are displaced. And both trends, displaced people and rising temperatures, are only on track to worsen. 

"Today, we not only have an absence of a global governance system, but we have sort of an unclear sense of power in the world," UN High Commissioner Antonio Gutteres told reporters earlier this month, as he announced the record-high refugee numbers.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees, the body charged with aiding the fast-growing stateless populations, can only do so much, and it's hamstrung by nations that won't allow it to intervene. Meanwhile, global temperatures are going to continue to rise for the foreseeable future, since we're emitting more carbon than ever, even as we hit benchmark temp after benchmark temp. We just passed 400 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere with no sign of slowing down.

So, there is a fast-rising number of refugees and displaced people, coupled with fast-rising temperatures. Record displacement and record heat. And there's no functional mode of governance in place to deal with either—and both factors will feed into each other. Not only should we deem it flat-out unacceptable that millions of people are without homes or states, but it's recipe for even further disaster. 

It is, as the Pentagon would say, a "threat multiplier." A hot, homeless world is also, justifiably, an angry, unpredictable one. Perversely, the hotter it gets, the more destabilized the world will become—and the more displacement and suffering we'll see.