Scientists estimate that modern humans (homo sapiens) have been wandering around the earth for somewhere in the range of 200,000 years. But despite this long existence, civilization and nationality are somewhat recent constructs that only emerged approximately 6000 years ago as some of the world’s oldest countries – Japan, China, Egypt, San Marino and France among others – began being established.
Today the world is composed of 195 different countries, each with its own government, laws, and politics. However just over 100 years ago, in 1900, there were less than half this amount in existence.
It seems that just when the spectrum of self-induced crises we face as a species require planetary-scale unity to overcome, the world is becoming more divided than ever.
On paper, sovereign states are divided by two-dimensional borders drawn across the page to mark ownership of territory, and on the ground, politics and passport control divide communities who often share much of the same culture, language and values.
From space, however, the planet still appears largely in its original form; as a spinning, floating lump of rock in space. Yes there are natural borders such as oceans, mountains and rivers that divide the earth’s landscapes and populations, but there are no lines, flags or nationalities visible to the astronauts on the International Space Station. Rather than personal, political or populist, the perspective from up there is planetary.
A panoramic view of the Earth from @NASA spacewalker Josh Cassada's helmet cam as the space station orbited over Spain's northwest coast earlier today. https://t.co/yuOTrZ4Jut pic.twitter.com/GKy3PCm2Fs
— International Space Station (@Space_Station) December 3, 2022
This “planetary perspective” is how Gaia Vince – award-winning science journalist, speaker, broadcaster, author and honorary Senior Research Fellow at UCL – sees our world. An outlook she hopes leaders and societies across the globe can also begin to obtain, seeing people on our planet as one, rather than segregated by imposed national and political boundaries.
Global-scale adoption of this holistic perspective is important not just for sentiment or solidarity, but as Vince explains in an interview with Nature on her latest book, “Nomad Century,” because in the not-so-distant future large parts of the planet may be rendered uninhabitable by climate change.
This climate-related concern is not exclusive to Vince however, it is in fact held by many climate advocates across the globe, with climate migration being voiced as a prominent issue at many global climate talks.
Most recently, the issue of climate displacement was raised at COP27 where a landmark (yet for many, disappointing) loss and damage fund was established for those countries most vulnerable to the fallout of the climate crisis.
The former head of the UK MI5, Baroness Eliza Manningham-Buller, also recently implored the British nation to do more to address climate change, climate-related food crises and mass climate migration.
The interconnected impacts of climate change have already begun making environmental, social and political changes to the planet, but as warming escalates, this break down is expected to escalate even further, making conditions in some places unlivable. As a result, those populations that are least responsible for polluting our planet, but yet suffer the worst of global warming’s consequences, will be forced from their homes.
“There will be no way for people to adapt,” stated Vince in the interview, “people will have to move,” adding that due to human-induced climate change, mass displacement is now “inevitable.”
“And we can’t sugar coat it. The kinds of extremes we’re facing, they’re unprecedented in human history,” Vince warned, suggesting that we may have to rethink and redraw map borders because “climate migration will reshape our world.”
“I think we’re going to have to change the way we look at human labour moving across borders, for sure. I don’t think we’re going to abandon the nation state, but I think we’re going to have to be a lot more flexible about who works where,” Vince said.
In many ways, climate and crises-related migration is already reshaping our world; nearly 24 million people are displaced annually as a result of climate-related disasters, just under 10 million were forced to move due to the flooding in Pakistan, and a further 7.1 million people were displaced so far due to the ongoing war in Ukraine.
However the scale of migration that is expected to occur as the planet warms further has never been witnessed before in the history of our species, and as Vince says, climate displacement is a “planetary-scale problem” that will require a cooperative and planned planetary-scale strategy to mitigate and manage.
“Right, let’s be pragmatic. Let’s not hide from the truth, but let’s see, how is this survivable?” Vince told the Nature interviewer in explaining the motivation behind the book.
“The four horsemen of the Anthropocene”
There’s a full spectrum of interconnected climate impacts that will drive human displacement, but Vince has pinned it down to four primary environmental extremes which she calls “the four horsemen of the Anthropocene” (the Anthropocene being the earth’s unofficial current geological epoch).
These are extreme heat, drought, flooding and fire.
These extreme weather scenarios have already been witnessed with an increased frequency and intensity in many parts of the world over the past couple of years, but as the climate crisis continues to escalate, so will these weather patterns. As this happens, people will simply no longer be able to bounce back between events, they will only have one option: to move.
Millions of people around the world are displaced. Their stories are often out of focus. But they need us to pay attention.
It’s not too late. pic.twitter.com/NLYuvntBwo
— IOM – UN Migration 🇺🇳 (@UNmigration) December 1, 2022
The problem is that climate change is a “threat multiplier,” meaning that the extremes in weather triggered by global warming in turn themselves trigger further environmental, social and political extremes such as poverty, inequality, conflict, crop failures, and food and energy shortages.
Climate models suggest that the net result of these interlinked climate impacts is expected to be clusters of hostile living conditions in climate hotspots across the globe’s “tropical belt,” Vince explained in the interview, often in places where the population is very large, forcing vast groups of people to leave their homes, jobs, and comfort zones in search of a safer place to live.
In the interview, Vince talked about the existence of two main types of borders: “true” borders; environmental boundaries that are determined by the geography and physical properties of the earth – “humans can’t live in large numbers in Antarctica or in the Sahara Desert,” explained Vince – and also “geopolitical” borders; those that are drawn by humans to mark territory on a map.
But soon, as Vince outlined, a new, unprecedented type of border will emerge, outside of the control of politics or people, and that’s the borders driven by climate change. This environmental pressure will redraw our planet’s boundaries and redefine where the world’s populations can exist, thrive, and ultimately survive.
Vince also explained that the areas expected to be most affected are the tropical belt across the middle of the planet, island states, coastlines and areas situated close to rivers. Concerningly, she notes that often the areas around rivers are the locations of some of the world’s biggest cities.
People will ultimately have to move from these at-risk areas to more habitable locations at higher latitudes where the impacts of climate change will be more manageable, areas which in some cases may even benefit from warming.
For example, the Arctic, a region for which global warming is of course largely catastrophic, is already experiencing a greening effect, which, as well hindering its vital planetary cooling function, could also promote agricultural activity due to milder conditions and abundance of access to water.
Similarly, northern latitudes such as those in Europe and Canada may be well positioned to weather global warming, as their economy and climate will likely benefit from latitudinal luck, experiencing milder conditions and increased influx of people from the global south to bolster their workforces.
The bottom line, is that due to the impacts of climate change, we are going to see mass climate migration, and it’s in our collective best interest as a planet to make that work. The core message of “Nomad Century” should not be viewed as scaremongering, but as a realistic picture of the world we live in, to make sure the future is kept in perspective.
Vince hopes she can bring discussions on climate migration strategies to the forefront of climate talks, both at the level of governments and international bodies, but also within communities around the world.
— Gaia Vince (@WanderingGaia) December 6, 2022
Managed migration rather than enforced evacuation
“Scientists have been talking about all of these issues for well over a decade,” Vince told the Nature interviewer, in relation to climate and environmental issues, yet world leaders have been slow to address the mitigation of the climate crisis.
Many voices have criticised the climate action measures being talked about and implemented at global events such as COP27 as long-overdue and insufficient.
Environmental change and damage caused by climate change is already happening across the globe, and the rate at which our energy, infrastructure, food, and weather systems are evolving is unprecedented. Climate migration is just one of the many interconnected impacts of this global shift.
Mass displacement of millions – if not billions – of people over the coming years is expected, but what’s not yet determined, is the scale at which this will occur, which is why Vince says she wanted to “start talking about it and in a pragmatic way.”
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In “Nomad Century” she presents the climate migration situation we face, draws different global maps of how the world’s habitable zones might look under varying degrees of planetary warming, and presents her own “manifesto” of solutions we can collectively work towards as a species to survive, if not thrive, in the face of it.
When speaking about the various options she offers as methods to navigate mass displacement, Vince stated: “[T]hey’re not simple, and they all have huge drawbacks, of course. But we do still have these choices.”
She warns that the time for proactivity of thought on navigating climate migration is now, to protect the prosperity of our futures.
Starting to prepare for and manage mass migration now could be treated as a “temporary adaptation and management” strategy to address the climate crisis, Vince explained to the interviewer, which when implemented in parallel with other climate action and restoration efforts, could help make the at-risk parts of the world more liveable again in the future.
Multi-year droughts and catastrophic hurricanes & floods have contributed to a severe hunger crisis.
We have to work further to ensure that migration induced by climate change is also understood as an adaptation strategy that can mitigate these scenarios.pic.twitter.com/Epa0MuWLOr
— António Vitorino (@IOMchief) November 30, 2022
But as Vince also warned in the interview, though it feels like a longterm issue, the timeline is relatively short. She also touches on how some countries like Kiribati and Bangladesh have already begun facilitating the migration of their people rather than waiting for the impacts of climate change to decide their fate for them.
Vince went on to say that the UN would be the best organisation to oversee the management of a global migration strategy that accounts for the spectrum of financial, political, cultural and social factors that will come into play.
“I’d like us to sort of discuss those [climate migration options and solutions] as a global community and then come up with a path for how we make those things happen,” stated Vince.
But, one of the main barriers we will face in implementing mass migration strategies, Vince explained, will be societal perspective.
Changing the global mindset on migration
There are “lots of myths” and “toxic narrative” surrounding migration that makes people on both sides of the movement wary, Vince explained to Nature.
She outlines how immigrants have largely been vilified by widespread populist anti-migrant narrative which in many ways labels them a burden on society and the economy, as well as a catalyst of crime and unemployment. As a result, society can have a warped view on migration, and can be reluctant to accept large numbers of people into their communities.
Vince revealed that despite this widespread anti-migrant narrative, the reverse is in fact true: immigration increases wages across the board, bolsters the workforce and economy, and lowers crime.
It really shouldn’t be hard to be an opposition leader at the moment without resorting to extremist/populist policies. Ffs! https://t.co/ZZS8c6k2jY
— Gaia Vince (@WanderingGaia) December 7, 2022
She does also explain, however, that mass immigration is not straightforward, in fact a myriad of social, economic and political infrastructure is required to make it work smoothly. But as Vince also states in the Nature interview, these initial investments will be “more than repaid” in the long term, especially given the reality of the demographic crisis of workforce shortages much of the developed world is currently facing.
“[W]e’re not having enough babies to support our ageing population, and that really is going to hit the proverbial fan very shortly. The only solution to this is immigration,” Vince told Nature.
On the flip-side, due to fear of being unwelcome in new and unknown territory, many vulnerable people fear deserting their homes, networks and countries to up-sticks and move across the world. The prospect that a new location will expose them to racial, cultural, economic, professional and social difficulties, keeps them stuck where they are.
The great injustice of it all, Vince explained, is that where we live is largely dependent on where we our parents were when we were born, and as the climate crisis intensifies, while people in the developed world who have the financial means to do so will move for comfort, those in the most vulnerable countries in the eye of the climate storm will have to move for survival.
Therefore, she feels we all have an obligation to make migration the easiest and best option for people, so that they choose a new life rather than to perish in fear of change.
She outlines how this will involve preparing developed country’s governments and societies for a sustainable, inclusive and pro-migrant mindset, and preparing people at risk of displacement with flexible livelihoods that can work in all environments, rural or urban, as much as possible.
Vince outlined how one of the main hurdles will be everyone feeling included in this sustainable “social project,” urging that immigrants need to feel welcome and a part of their new society, but also the existing community must understand that they need to accept them.
"As the global population reaches 8 billion, we must avoid focusing on the scale of migration, but consider its quality.
— IOM – UN Migration 🇺🇳 (@UNmigration) November 30, 2022
Territorial tunnel-vision must end
Everyone can be forgiven for losing sight of the bigger picture in the slow-pace of everyday life; as Vince touched upon in the Nature interview, on a daily basis, life can feel somewhat sedentary. With this frame, migration on a planetary-scale could possibly be a hard pill to swallow for the average person, who may see such ambitious ideas as idealistic rather than founded on present-day reality.
But rather than idealistic, Vince’s message is imperative, not just because it’s realistically the only option, but also because, as she explains in the interview, humans are inherently a “migratory species.”
In the book, Vince writes: “Migration will save us because it is migration that made us who we are.”
She explained how our species is thought to have started in Africa and colonised out from there; changing and building upon the planet and landscape as we went. Perhaps we can therefore be confident that collaboration and cooperation for a better future are at our core – because history says so.
“[W]e are entirely the products of migration, even if we ourselves are not migrating personally,” Vince told the interviewer.
Vince also pointed out that the world currently runs on secondary migrations in the form of trade; the food, money, resources, information and technology that surround us every day all come from the many spread out corners of the world, traveling with ease across borders due to the agreements, laws and policies in place to facilitate it. Why can’t we apply this mindset to migration?
Some economists even hypothesise that if we removed all national borders, the global GDP would at least double, Vince highlighted.
If we’re going to continue to drive climate change, as well as endure the damage we’ve already done, then our concept of nationality and sovereignty is going to have become more flexible – the time for territorial tunnel-vision is over.
“I would like everyone to pull together and work to create a better world,” said Vince.
The climate crisis will challenge the concept of borders and nations, and force us to reimagine, rethink and redraw its parameters. It’s certainly not going to happen without challenge, international cooperation, and a collective open mind – but what is the alternative?
There is a global consensus that, as the planet warms, without collective action, we stand to lose landscape and biodiversity. But what also needs to be brought to the foreground of conversations on climate change, is that if we don’t act now to make a plan to protect the people at risk of climate-related displacement, we stand to lose much more in the way of language, culture, and ancestry.
Correction: This article has been updated since original publication to further emphasise the important message of “Nomad Century,” clarify the Anthropocene, and correct grammatical errors in quotes.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by the authors are their own, not those of Impakter.com — In the Featured Photo: World map. Featured Photo Credit: Z/Unsplash