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 zoomed out worldview is how Gaia Vince – award-winning science journalist, author and honorary Senior Research Fellow at UCL – sees civilization. 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.
As Vince explains in an interview with Nature on her latest book, “Nomad Century,” global-scale adoption of this holistic perspective is important not just for sentiment or solidarity, but because in just a few short years 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 mitigate climate change to address the impending climate-related food crisis as well as mass 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 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 to adapt, people will have to move,” says Vince, stating that due to human-induced climate change, mass displacement is now inevitable.
“We can’t sugarcoat it, the kinds of extremes we’re facing, they are unprecedented in human history,” warns Vince, stating that maps as we know them will have to be redrawn because “climate migration will reshape our world.”
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.
“Let’s be pragmatic, let’s not hide from the truth, but let’s see how this is survivable,” says Vince.
The four horsemen of the Anthropocene
There’s a full spectrum of interconnected climate impacts that will cause people to move, 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 current geological era). 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.
The net result of these interlinked crises will be clusters of hostile living conditions in climate hotspots across the globe, often in places where the population is very dense, which will force large groups of people to leave their homes, jobs, and comfort zones in search of a safer place to live.
In her book, Vince talks about the existence of two main types of borders: “true” borders; environmental boundaries that are determined by the landscape of the earth – people simply cannot thrive in the arctic or desert, and “geopolitical” borders; those that are drawn by world leaders to mark territory on a map.
But soon, as Vince outlines, 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.
The areas that will be affected most are expected to be the tropical belt across the middle of the planet, as well as coastlines and areas situated close to rivers. Concerningly, Vince notes that often the areas around rivers are the locations of some of the world’s biggest cities, built there due to logistical convenience.
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, may also experience a flip-side greening effect that could actually promote agricultural activity due to milder conditions and abundance of access to water.
Similarly, Canada and Northern Europe are well positioned to weather global warming, as their economy and climate will likely benefit from the areas’ 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 human-induced climate change, we are going to see mass migration, and it’s in our best interest to make that work. However, in writing “Nomad Century,” Vince’s intention is not to scaremonger or invoke existential dread, but more to paint a realistic picture of the world we live in and 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 warning the world about climate change and its impacts for at least the past decade, yet world leaders and their governments are still struggling to engage fully with the urgency of the crisis that’s already devastating their countries.
The climate action, mitigation and adaptation measures being talked about and implemented at global events such as COP27 are long-overdue, and still many of these efforts are insufficient proverbial band aids that simply mask the climate problem, without tackling the crux of it.
As a result, environmental change and damage 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 not just expected, it’s inevitable. But what’s not yet determined is the scale at which this will occur, which Vince says can still largely be mitigated by action.
Related Articles: The United States: Russian Asylum Seekers Not Welcome | The Price Migrants Pay for Freedom in the US | Refugees: Why We Should Stop Seeing Them As An Economic Burden | Non-Citizens and COVID: How Migrants Are Valuable Contributors
In “Nomad Century” she presents the migration problem we face, draws different global maps of how this displacement might play out 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 optimize the pending displacement, Vince admits “they’re not simple, and they all have huge drawbacks of course, but we do still have these choices.”
She warns that without proactivity, our options for riding the climate migration wave will diminish, along with the prosperity of young people’s futures.
Starting to prepare and manage mass migration in the present could be treated as part of global climate adaptation efforts, which when implemented in parallel with mitigation, 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 the timeline is short, and we can’t simply wait to let people perish before collective global action is taken. That’s why some countries like Kiribati and Bangladesh have taken matters into their own hands, already beginning to facilitate the migration of their people rather than waiting for the impacts of climate change to decide their fate for them.
Vince says that the UN would be the best organisation to oversee the implementation 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 discuss [climate migration strategies] as a global community, and then come up with a path for how we make those things happen,” states Vince.
But even with governments onboard and the best interests at heart, one of the main barriers we will face in implementing ambitious migration strategies, Vince explains, will be civil perspective.
Changing the global mindset on migration
There are a lot of myths surrounding migration that makes people on both sides of the movement wary.
Immigrants have largely been vilified by widespread populist anti-migrant narrative which labels them a burden on society and the economy, as well as a catalyst of crime and unemployment. As a result, much of society has a warped view on migration, and is reluctant to accept large numbers of people into their communities.
Vince explains that the classic trope of migrant influx damaging the prosperity of a country is nothing but a myth, and that 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
Mass immigration is not straight-forward though, in fact a myriad of social, economic and political infrastructure is required to make it work smoothly. But as Vince 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.
“We’re not having enough babies to support our aging population,” says Vince, “that really is going to hit the proverbial fan very shortly… the solution to this is immigration.”
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 and potentially hostile location will expose them to racial, economic, professional, psychological, and social difficulties, keeps them stuck where they are.
The great injustice of it all is that where we live is largely dependent on the random chance of where we our parents were when we were born. Yet as the world’s wealthiest countries continue to pollute and push the climate to its limit, people in the developed world who have the financial means to do so will move for comfort, but those in the most vulnerable countries in the eye of the climate storm will have to move for survival.
Therefore, as a collective global society, we all have an obligation to plan, manage, and make migration the easiest and best option for climate victims, so that they choose a new life rather than to perish in fear of change.
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 believes the main hurdle 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 needs to choose 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
On a daily basis, life feels somewhat sedentary, and everyone can be forgiven for losing sight of the bigger picture in the slow-pace of everyday life. With this frame, migration on a planetary-scale is a hard pill to swallow for the average person, and Gaia Vince’s ambitious ideas in some ways seem idealistic rather than founded on present-day reality.
But Vince has undeterred confidence in the success of this strategy, as should we all, not just because it’s realistically the only option, but also because humans are inherently a migratory species.
“We have always migrated,” says Vince, “migration will save us, because it’s migration that made us who we are.”
Our species is thought to have started in Africa and spread out from there, collaborating, building, and revolutionizing as we went – cooperation for a better future is at our core because history says so.
“We are entirely the products of migration, even if we ourselves are not migrating personally,” says Vince.
Vince also points out that the world currently runs on secondary migrations in the form of trade; the food, money, resources, information and technology that surround you everyday 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.
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’d like everyone to pull together and create a better world,” says 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?
As the planet warms, losing landscape and biodiversity is unavoidable, but 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.
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