Medicanes: How Capitalism Has Brewed the Perfect Storm

Introduction – Medicanes

In September 2023, countries across the Mediterranean were impacted by Storm Daniel, the deadliest Mediterranean cyclone in history.[1]  Heavy rainfalls led to deadly floods in Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey in the initial days of the storm.[2]  However, the northern coast of Libya was most heavily impacted, as two dams collapsed amidst the floods in the city of Derna.[3] Such a devastating storm is colloquially referred to as a ‘medicane’ – a hurricane-like cyclone in the Mediterranean.[4] Such storms’ characteristics mirror that of a tropical cyclone, making them much more powerful than other Mediterranean storms.[5] Medicanes are associated with heavy winds and extreme rainfall.[6] In the past, such storms have been considered rare but, as the climate crisis continues, scientists predict medicanes may only become more frequent and more extreme.[7]

The rise in the global temperature due to carbon emissions will only intensify natural disasters such as flooding.[8] The Mediterranean is the warmest it has ever been, pointing to a future of more devastating climate disasters to come.[9] The level of displacement caused by similar extreme weather events is significant and poses a serious threat as climate change worsens. The UN estimates that nearly 21.5 million people are displaced due to climate change every year,[10] and the total number of people displaced by 2050 could be over one billion.[11] Such storms whose intensity is triggered by climate change must be accounted for in countries’ immigration policies to protect those made most vulnerable.

Storm Daniel – Impact on Libya

Of the many countries impacted by Storm Daniel, Libya has been most heavily impacted and is facing a massive humanitarian crisis as a result, especially in cities like Derna on the northeastern coast.[12] Derna experienced eight months’ worth of rain in the span of a few days.[13] The Wadi Derna River flooded, and the pressure of the heavy rainfall led to the collapse of two dams upstream.[14] The collapse of these dams released one billion cubic feet of water into the already flooded surrounding areas.[15] This amount of water is equivalent to 12,000 Olympic sized swimming pools. The water released from the destruction of the dams sent waves over twenty feet tall rushing through the city.[16] The dams burst early in the morning on September 11 around three a.m. as the residents were asleep, already struggling with the heavy deluge from the previous days.[17] The catastrophic collapse of the dams swept through the small coastal city, destroying buildings and wiping out entire neighborhoods while families were trapped inside.[18] Over 11,000 buildings were destroyed or damaged, including 117 schools and 126 health facilities.[19]

Nearly one third of this city, home to under 100,000 people, has been displaced by the flooding.[20] Of the 42,000 people estimated to be displaced by the storm, 30,000 of them are from Derna.[21] As of September 18, 2023, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (“OCHA”) announced that at least 11,300 people died in the massive flood in Derna alone.[22] The secretary-general of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (“IFRC”) in Libya, Marie el-Drese, announced that another 10,100 in Derna were estimated to be missing.[23] The mayor of the city estimates that the death toll could reach 20,000 due to the number of neighborhoods that have been completely destroyed by the catastrophe.[24] Emergency workers are scrambling to find survivors in the mud and the rubble throughout Derna.[25] Rescuers also report that dead bodies are washing up on shore.[26] As survivors search for their loved ones amidst their own displacement, they must also face the risk of potential infection via waterborne diseases.[27] The assistant chief of mission for Libya’s U.N. refugee agency describes aftermath of the storm as “unfathomable levels of destruction.”[28]

The Libyan people are particularly vulnerable to such disasters after years of government corruption and poor maintenance of public infrastructure.[29] The Deputy Mayor of Derna, Ahmed Madroud, says that the dams that collapsed had not been properly maintained since 2002.[30] Researchers at one of the largest institutions in Libya, Omar Al-Mukhtar University, warned that the Wadi Derna Basin had a high potential for floods due to the lack of maintenance of the dams.[31] Many blame local authorities’ inaction for the level of catastrophe, stating the cost of the tragedy could have been cinder blocks and bags of cement, rather than the tens of thousands of people who lost their lives.[32] The destruction of      the dams has made Derna highly inaccessible due to the loss of roads, bridges, and powerlines.[33]

Natural Disasters Link to the Climate Crisis

The catastrophic event was exacerbated by human caused climate change. Scientists at the University of Reading assert that storms across the globe are becoming “more ferocious because of climate change.”[34] Warmer waters fuel storms, and the warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture in the air.[35] For every one degree Celsius the world temperature increases, the atmosphere can hold about seven percent more moisture, making heavy precipitation more likely.[36] Climate scientists who study extreme weather events at The World Weather Attribution (“WWA”) Initiative found that climate change made the impact of Storm Daniel in northeastern Libya fifty times more likely to occur and fifty percent more extreme.[37] In their study, the WWA scientists compared climate models from today to pre-industrial levels, which the current world is nearly 1.2 degrees Celsius warmer than due to carbon emissions in the last few decades.[38] Climate researcher Karsten Haustein at Leipzig University finds that such research underscores how rare such extreme weather events were in a world without the climate crisis.[39]

Displacement as a Result of Climate Change

What were once rare events are now becoming more commonplace as the world becomes hotter.[40] This means that the international community must prepare for the humanitarian crises, such as those stemming from Storm Daniel, in order to prevent more extreme natural disasters and take care of those who are impacted by such storms. Part of the international response must be to provide protections for those displaced either internally or externally by climate change. [41] The International Organization for Migration estimates that by 2050 there could be at least 40 billion people who were displaced due to climate change.[42] In 2021, almost 22.3 million people were displaced by weather events.[43] It is difficult to predict the precise number of people who will be displaced as climate change intensifies and socioeconomic conditions change.[44]

Legal Protections for those Displaced by Natural Disasters

There are currently very few protections provided through international law for people who must migrate due to disasters fueled by climate change.[45] The lack of legal protections for climate migrants cannot be separated from the struggle many migrants face, which is the growing hostility towards immigration fueled by racism and xenophobia.[46] Across the world, conversations around migration are met with “xenophobic, militarized responses, including the construction or expansion of border walls.”[47] Such responses are most prevalent in affluent countries, who disproportionately contribute to the climate crisis, such as the United States. [48] Climate change is fueled by carbon capitalism, a term coined by Carmen G. Gonzalez, Morris I. Leibman Professor of Law at the Loyola University Chicago School of Law.[49] Capitalism is responsible for the fuel-based economy of the industrialized world, which is inextricably linked to colonization and slavery.[50]  The economic and social origins of the climate crisis in racism and oppression continue to persist today.[51] Those most impacted by climate change are people of color, as carbon capitalism imposes violence onto such communities around the world.[52] Racism is used to determine which areas of the world are “sacrifice zones” in the climate crisis as the world becomes increasingly uninhabitable.[53] Given the systems of oppression that fuel the climate crisis, it is essential for the international community to address imbalance between those who benefit from the fossil fuel industry and those who suffer the consequences.[54]

Refugees and the Climate Crisis

A refugee is defined as a person who has migrated to a different country and is unable to return due to a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.”[55] This does not account for those impacted by climate change.[56] More recently, the United Nations Human Rights Committee included that the impact of climate change may violate human rights under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR); however, in a recent case, Ioane Teitiota v. The Chief Executive of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, the Committee found that the petitioner’s country of origin would “not become uninhabitable for ten to fifteen years,” so they must return.[57] It begs the question – how much climate destruction is enough for protection?

In 2015, the New Zealand High Court denied a Kiribati citizen refugee status.[58] The appellant, Ioane Teitiota, argued that the rising sea levels were forcing citizens off the island.[59] Mr. Teitiota and his family had difficulty farming due to environmental degradation and their access to freshwater was increasingly limited due to rising sea levels that contaminated it.[60] There are also a growing number of land disputes as more land becomes inhospitable.[61] The High Court, however, found that this did not meet the criteria necessary for refugee status, namely persecution, serious harm, or serious violation of human rights.[62] In the opinion, the Court writes; “we are not persuaded that there is any risk of substantial miscarriage of justice.”[63]

This opinion exemplifies colonial powers’ disregard of environmental degradation done onto previously colonized people. Kiribati only gained independence from colonial rule from the United Kingdom 1979.[64] Moreover, Kiribati is an atoll, a ring-shaped island, which makes it particularly vulnerable to climate change. [65] The appellant brought the case to the UN Human Rights Committee (HRC) following the denial from the New Zealand High Court.[66] The facts of the impact of climate change on Mr. Teitiota’s family remained the same with the addition of one critical fact – his daughter had contracted an illness from the contaminated water supply.[67] In 2020, the HRC released a ground-breaking decision; “Pacific Island states do not need to be under water before triggering human rights obligations to protect the right to life.”[68] The HRC acknowledged that climate change is a necessary consideration for future asylum cases in which climate change poses a serious threat to the right to life under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.[69] The Committee set forth new standards to consider, namely that individuals seeking asylum would no longer have to prove imminent harm if they were to return to their home country.[70] This is because climate change can trigger both long term changes, like land degradation, or sudden changes, via intense storms.[71]

However, the HRC still did not find that the appellant from Kiribati was in imminent danger, despite his claims, and found his deportation from New Zealand to be lawful.[72] Mr. Teitiota’s family is already in danger, given the illness of his daughter and eroding land.[73] The word ‘imminent’ for those seeking asylum due to climate change proves to be the ultimate point of contention. The reality for families such as the Teitiotas is that they must continue      living in deteriorating conditions due to climate change until the quality of life is deemed enough by the courts to show ‘imminent’ danger.[74] The key to the inaction can be found in Mr. Teitiota’s first case in New Zealand in the opinion of Justice Priestley, who notes he could not grant asylum to Mr. Teitiota because of the legal precedent it would set around the world for millions of people who face “hardships caused by climate change.”[75] The courts must change the legal precedent precisely for this reason – to expand the safety and health of millions of people. Those in power are continuing the dangerous legacy of colonialism by deeming certain lives dispensable.


[1] Richard Marcantonio & Jason Miklian, Cyclone Daniel: A ‘natural’ disaster exacerbated by climate change and political instability, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (Oct. 2, 2023),,after%20months%20of%20unrelenting%20drought.

[2] Alyssa Glenny, Storm Daniel turns deadly as it ravages Greece, Turkey with flooding rain, AccuWeather (Sept. 5, 2023),

[3] Samy Magdy, Thousands are feared dead and thousands more are missing in flood-ravaged eastern Libya, AP News (Sept. 12, 2023),

[4]Agence France-Presse, What are medicanes? The ‘supercharged’ Mediterranean storms that could become more frequent, The Guardian (Sept. 14, 2023),

[5] Davide Faranda & Erika Coppola, The “medicanes” (mediterranean hurricanes) and climate change,

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Davide Faranda et al., A climate-change attribution retrospective of some impactful weather extremes of 2021,  3 Weather and Climate Dynamics 1311, 1311-1340  (2022),

[9] Faranda, supra note 5.

[10] Press Release, Frequently asked questions on climate change and disaster displacement, UNHCR Press Release (Nov. 16, 2016)

[11] Press Release, Over one billion people at threat of being displaced by 2050 due to environmental change, conflict and civil unrest, Institute For Economics and Peace Press Release, (Sept. 9, 2020)

[12] Glenny, supra 2.

[13] 2023 Libya Floods, Center for Disaster Philanthropy (CDP) (2023),

[14] Id.

[15] CPD, supra note 13; see also Flooding death toll soars to 11,300 in Libya’s coastal city of Derna, Al Jazeera (Sept. 15, 2023)

[16] Patrick Smith, Death toll hits 11,300 in Libyan city destroyed by floods, NBC News (Sept. 14, 2023),

[17] Nadeen Ebrahim & Laura Paddison, Aging dams and missed warnings: A lethal mix of factors caused Africa’s deadliest flood disaster, CNN (Sept. 15, 2023),

[18] International Medical Corps (IMC), Libya Flooding: Situation Update (2023),

[19] Press Release, Libya: Flood Response Humanitarian Update, UN OCHA (Oct. 11, 2023),

[20] CPD, supra note 13.

[21] Emily Cassidy, Storm Aftermath in Derna, Libya, NASA Earth Observatory (Sept. 2023),; IMC, supra note 18.

[22] Al Jazeera, supra note 15.

[23] Id.

[24] Id.

[25] Id.

[26] Id.

[27] Samy Magdy & Yousef Murad, Left behind and grieving, survivors of devastating Libya floods call for accountability, PBS News (Sept. 20, 2023),,communities%20or%20sheltered%20in%20schools.

[28] Id.

[29] Virginia Pietromarchi, Natural disaster or man-made, why was Libya so vulnerable to floods?, Al Jazeera, (Sept. 14, 2023),

[30] Id.

[31] Abdelwanees A. R Ashoor, Estimation of the surface runoff depth of Wadi Derna Basin by integrating the geographic information systems and Soil Conservation Service (SCS-CN) model, 21 J. of Pure and Applied Sciences (2022),

[32] Al Jazeera, supra note 15.

[33] Smith, supra note 16.

[34] Ebrahim, supra note 17.

[35] Id.

[36] Laura Paddison. Horrific Libya flooding made up to 50 times more likely by planet-warming pollution, scientists find, CNN (Sept. 19, 2023),

[37] Id.

[38] Id.

[39] Id.

[40] John Podesta, The climate crisis, migration, and refugees, The Brookings Institute (July 25, 2019),

[41] Id.

[42] Mostafa Mahmud Naser et al., Policy challenges and responses to environmental non-migration, Nature Journal (Mar. 6, 2023),

[43] Id.

[44] Carmen Gonzalez, Climate Change, Race, And Migration, 1 J. Law and Political Economy (2023),

[45] Id.

[46] Id.

[47] Id.

[48] Id.

[49] Id.

[50] Id.

[51] Id.

[52] Id.

[53] Id.

[54] Id.

[55] Id.

[56] Id.

[57] Id.


[59] Supra note 58.

[60] Press Release, United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, Historic UN Human Rights case opens door to climate change asylum claims, U.N. Press Release (Jan. 21, 2020),

[61] Id.

[62] Supra note 58.

[63] Id.

[64] United Nations Department of Political Affairs, Trusteeship and Decolonization, Decolonization; Issue on Kiribati (Gilbert Islands) (July 1979),

[65]Sally Brown et al., Pathways to sustain atolls under rising sea levels through land claim and island raising, 2 Envtl. Res. Climate (Feb. 16, 2023).

[66] UN landmark case for people displaced by climate change, Amnesty Int’l (Jan. 20, 2020),

[67] Simon Behrman & Avidan Kent, The Teitiota Case and the limitations of the human rights framework, Questions of Int’l L. J. (Nov. 30, 2020).

[68] Supra 66.

[69] Id.

[70] Supra 60

[71] Id.

[72] Supra 66. 

[73] Supra 67

[74] Id.

[75] Kenneth R. Weiss, The Making of a Climate Refugee, Foreign Policy (Jan. 28, 2015)