Europe could be inundated by not thousands, but hundreds of millions of migrants from the Middle East and Africa over the years to come because burgeoning population growth combined with climate change will render their home territories uninhabitable. That is one scenario envisioned by Prof. Arnon Soffer, a leading geostrategist at the University of Haifa and adviser to the Israeli government, if climate change continues on its present trajectory.
The planet faces the biggest migration of man ever seen, Soffer predicts.
Not all agree with Soffer's dramatic conclusion, but the scientific consensus is converging on a hotter, drier future for the Levant and North Africa. The question is how much hotter and how much drier. Predictions for the Middle East by the year 2100 range from an increase of 2-4 degrees Celsius, which is onerous enough, to an increase of 8-12 degrees Celsius in the high-emissions scenario, which would be unsurvivable, Soffer points out.
In either case, this isn't some spike in migration that we're seeing, says Soffer. It's a turning point in history.
Because of the horrendous complexity of climatic models, nobody can predict future temperatures with any confidence.
"I'm a historian, not a forecaster," qualifies Prof. Ronnie Ellenblum of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who accepts the precept of global warming but is skeptical about the more apocalyptic predictions out there. On the flip side, Ellenblum studies historical periods of climate change and migration: an expert on the Crusades in particular, he has intensively studied one of the periods in history marked by all the above: the cold trough of the 10th and 11th centuries CE, known as the Medieval Climate Anomaly). Indeed, human history is marked throughout by environmental changes leading to mass migrations to the Middle East.
Ahead of the global climate change conference in Paris starting at month-end, as migrants pile up on its shores, and given the utter failure of the developed world to scale back greenhouse gas emissions as they vowed - the connection between climate change and mass migration bears an honest look.
One reason for the misconception that the Syrian civil war and Islamic State caused the massive flight from Syria is that the world press covers the plight of the desperate Syrian refugees more than it did the thousands upon thousands of equally desperate Africans seeking new shores for years before ISIS arose, Soffer points out. The Africans on the move tend to make headlines chiefly when a boat overturns, he adds.
But history is replete with examples of one population moving away from distressed territory and brutally displacing another, though the climate changes in question fell into the category of transient fluctuations in weather patterns, not a change in the baseline conditions of Planet Earth, which what scientists argue we are experiencing now.
About 3,200 years ago, Mesopotamia was devastated by drought. That combined with other unfortunate circumstances led the great civilizations of the era to collapse. Much like ISIS today - the Sea Peoples sailed into the void, conquering tottering empires from ancient Egypt to the coastal regions of the Levant. (The Philistines so loathed and feared around the Mediterranean basin were among those Sea Peoples.)
Over a thousand years later, the 4th and 5th centuries brought massive movement by Turkic tribes fleeing westward from frigid conditions in central Asia toward Hungary and the Balkans; Germanic tribes fled the ice southward.
Come the 10th and 11th century C.E., central Asia, Russia and Siberia, and the Middle East underwent another unusually frigid period. Starving peoples fled toward today's Iran.
Meanwhile, Ellenblum discovered by rooting though historical documents from the region, the Middle East was experiencing serial disasters of its own, including atypical cold, and terrible drought that all but dried up the Nile. A series of extremely cold winters, so cold that they caused the Tigris and the great canal of Baghdad to freeze, led to the first documented mass migration of Turkish tribes into the Middle East. Droughts affecting Syria and Palestine led to the deterioration and desertion of many of the cities of Palestine.
"At the peak of this period, in the year 1055, the great city Baghdad fell to nomad invaders," Ellenblum describes.
That sounds eerily reminiscent of events today. During the winter of 2013-2014, not one drop of rain fell into the territory now controlled by ISIS.
Demographic time bombs
The entire global population has been growing but, Soffer says, the people of the Middle East and North Africa outstripped them all, doubling in the 30 years from 1950 to 1980, then doubling again in less than 28 years (1980-2008). With that trajectory, if the African continent presently has a billion people, within a decade, another half billion could be added. Especially given that the affected nations are poor, it is patently impossible to build adequate infrastructure to support such population growth, says Soffer. Ergo, the quality of life throughout the continent will deteriorate. Now add climate change to that mix.
Also, research has found correlations between hotter temperatures and viler tempers. The forecast is therefore for increasingly bad-tempered people living in increasingly crowded, deteriorating conditions in North Africa and the Middle East.
Forecasting is said to be a pastime for fools, which never stopped anyone, from the oracle at Delphi to Wall Street analysts, to professors. It's their job.
Soffer does some math: the Nile Basin is home to some 400 million people, and the Nile's volume has been trending down. Desalination is no solution: it's too expensive. How many can feasibly escape the increasingly onerous conditions in the Nile region?
Say 100-200 million can walk toward Egypt and Israel and thence to Europe, following in the steps of countrymen who have already made the trek, including from Sudan and Eritrea, says Soffer.
Taking all of Africa, 800 lakes have dried up during the last 20 years. That combined with rapid population growth, war and corruption, leading to hopelessness, means that another 100-200 million will be migrating, he projects.
Meanwhile, we have some 450 more people living miserably in the Middle East who would scarper if they could. "Even if only 20 percent do, we have nearly 100 million more seeking new homes," Soffer writes.
Half a billion people and counting could be moving, he projects. Where could they go? Their natural target is Europe.
That's without going into apocalyptic forecasts of the Himalayan glaciers evaporating, causing the great rivers of Asia to shrivel (if not disappear), bringing disaster utter to 2-3 billion people, Soffer says.
How likely is any of this to happen? We don't know. But we do know, two weeks ahead of the great Paris conference, that neither Israel nor any other country anywhere on the planet, has been meeting their emission commitments. And they aren't even close to decarbonizing human industry.
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