How Climate Change Helped Fuel the Syria Refugee Crisis


When you think of humanitarian efforts, you think of people working to help other people during and after a catastrophe. For example, there are now more than two million Syrian refugees, and humanitarian organizations are working around the clock to handle the influx of people to refugee camps like Zataari. Oxfam, Mercy Corps, the United Nations, and other organizations are all stretched to their limits, and if Syria is hit with military strikes, there will no doubt be additional numbers of people affected.

The UN termed Syria the "worst humanitarian crisis" of our time, but it will in no way be the last one. Our current global policies essentially predict that we will be facing significant humanitarian crises in the future — and thanks to detailed, available analytics, we know exactly how these crises will appear.

Take climate change, for example. Science Magazine published a research study in August 2013 linking increased rates of human conflict — wars, murders, rapes, and other violence — to increased global temperatures and climate instability. We have empirical evidence predicting that there will be increased numbers of people victimized by violence, particularly in the areas with the fewest resources to deal with climate change. These are some of the areas you already hear about in the news: Syria, Libya, rural India. We need to plan for these humanitarian interventions now.

Of course, there will always be detractors. Anti-government pundits like Alex Jones argue that any increased violence is simply related to poverty and other economic factors — the old "they do it because they're poor" argument. Somehow this makes just as much sense to him as the New World Order performing occult rituals in the Redwoods, an accusation he says he proved with his covert Bohemian Grove video.

Needless to say, people like Alex Jones will be less likely to support forward-thinking humanitarian actions designed to anticipate growing conflicts and provide protection to the populations most likely affected. 

Even something as simple as educating India's men and women on the importance of preventing domestic violence — one of the predicted rising indicators associated with climate change — requires a significant shift in the concept of "future humanitarianism." It requires humanitarian organizations to recognize that we need to be addressing not only the crises of today, but also the crises of tomorrow.

To be fair, there are already humanitarian organizations adapting to new challenges and preparing for future needs. Take, for example, the March of Dimes humanitarian award, awarded to public business and community leaders such as Jeff Bartel. March of Dimes was originally founded to eradicate polio, but now works towards increasing both maternal and infant health. It is a key example of a humanitarian organization that knows how to change to meet future needs.

What we don't have is a distinct future humanitarian movement, in which humanitarian organizations and activists work not to directly aid people on the ground — there are plenty of other organizations for that — but instead work to anticipate forthcoming humanitarian crises and take steps to prevent or mitigate their effects. For example, groups who work to build levees in cities that will be devastated by rising coastal waters in 2050, groups that work to educate new parents about teaching their children to avoid violence, and groups that talk to communities about equal distribution of resources decades before resource shortage ever becomes an issue.

And, of course, the associated Future Humanitarian Award, given out publicly as a symbol that we need to take care of not only our current populations, but also the people who will come after them. The world is going to change dramatically in the second half of the 21st century, and it is our job to prevent these changes from causing unnecessary suffering, conflict, war, or atrocities. Future humanitarianism, as a movement, is the way to start.