From Clexit to Brexit

How climate change fuels political unrest

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Syrian and Iraqi refugees arriving in Greece
By Ggia (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 ] via Wikimedia Commons

I admit to being a little annoyed that the made up word “Brexit” suddenly started being used as if it were just another ordinary word that is already in everyone’s vocabulary.  So I feel like a bit of a hypocrite for doing this, but I’m going to jump on the bandwagon and make up another word, “clexit.”  That’s my shorthand for climate exit.  As climate change progresses and we see more droughts, fires, extreme weather, and sea level rise, more people will be displaced from their homes, and there you have it, clexit.  And there’s evidence that clexit has led to Brexit, and also provides fodder for those who spread xenophobia.  This is leading us down a dangerous path.

Many of us in the U.S. have a disconnect from the effects of climate change, especially for those of us lucky enough to live in places that are somewhat sheltered, like here in Oregon in the Willamette Valley. If you are not a farmer losing crops to drought, someone who has lost their home to a drought fueled fire, or the owner of coastal property in Miami, the threat of climate change may not feel like an immediate threat.  We read about heat waves in India, melting ice in the Arctic and changes to the oceans. It gives us a sense of alarm, and a looming feeling that change is happening, but we don’t always feel it in our daily lives.   So we carry on with our plans for the future optimistically using life as it worked in the past as our blueprint, both as individuals and governments.

The way many of us may really begin to feel the effects of climate change will be in the form of social and economic problems.  It’s not as dramatic as a massive hurricane, or a wildfire and it moves towards us a more gradually and arrives more quietly.  And like the frog in boiling water anecdote, the heat has already been turned on, those lower on the economic scale feel it more than others.  But even the rich are not immune, and the heat will continue to rise. It’s up to us to work now to turn it off before it’s too late.

Conflict and refugee crises are nothing new, but climate change has the potential to exacerbate these problems. What is happening in Syria is no doubt complex, but researchers are recognizing the role that climate change and inadequate planning by government has played in this.  British Imperialism created the bread crumb trail back to their country attracting refugees as they flee the middle east and Africa.  When it came to the Brexit decision it often focused on immigration and securing borders.  It played on fears of terrorism and found support among those with lacking education and good paying jobs ready for a scapegoat.  Sound familiar?

Back home in the U.S, the effects of climate change in Mexico and Central America may also be fueling more clexit.  As droughts continue and crop yield fails, we will see more immigrants from the south coming over our borders.  A wall cannot stop this from happening.  And as already stressed systems see an influx of immigrants we also see an influx of dangerous political rhetoric with an “us vs. them” approach that will only lead to more conflict.

So the pressures are there and it’s up to us and our governments to start planning now.  Influxes of new people create many challenges, jobs, housing, more services needed.  We need to keep working towards a just transition to renewable energy to help prevent more disasters, but we also need to be prepared for the fact that we won’t be able to do that overnight and clexit will happen.  We need to be prepared to handle climate refugees, prevent conflict and xenophobia, and stop the rise of leaders that feed on fear.  There are no easy answers, and the solutions will look different for different communities, but planning now can make a world of difference.