Recently climate change has been in the news. While some people still deny that man-made climate change is happening, most people agree that humans are causing global changes in climate. That leads us to the obvious question: How will it impact us? Are we safe? Should you be afraid? This article looks to the future to talk about how global climate change might impact Americans and others through climate change-related migration and civil unrest.
Whenever we look at climate change-related migration, it is almost impossible to make an accurate prediction. Our first taste of climate migration predictions came from a scientist named Norman Myers. Norman Myers was responsible for several policy papers in the 1990s regarding migration due to climate change. Myers tended towards the apocalyptic and unfortunately had somewhat questionable methods. Myers’s worst case scenario saw 200 million refugees produced by climate change by 2050. Some of his predictions received heavy criticism. Myers tended to simplify assumptions in ways that, while not dishonest, could have been more rigorous. For example, Myers would assume that every member of an at-risk region would be forced to move rather than only a percentage of people losing their homes. The reality is much more nuanced. While Myers’s writings did bring significant media attention, climate change deniers would later use his inaccurate predictions as talking points.
However, Myers was not the only one making predictions. Other predictions have been made with regards to the social impact of climate change in various news outlets. However, these predictions have rarely been vetted by the scientific community. Due to the lack of consensus on how to make predictions on the social impact of climate change, there is no clear way to actually make predictions that can withstand peer review. Even the IPCC has failed to weigh in on this topic. Instead, the IPCC has simply discussed risks without an in-depth study of the implications of those risks.
Could climate-based migration not actually be happening?
I wouldn’t go that far. It’s actually pretty hard to accurately describe “environmental migration” though.
Would you consider an elderly couple moving from the New England region to Florida to escape cold winters to be “environmental migration?” What about someone leaving the Niger delta due to flooding only to return once the flooding has stopped? In the first situation, the migration is a voluntary preference driving a permanent move. In the later situation, the migration is a temporary requirement that forces an individual to leave their home for a season. Which qualify? Do both? Neither? Since we lack a rigorous methodology to study this, we’re left with estimates to base our impact assessments on.
Going along with these thoughts, it’s also easy to say that people move for a lot of different reasons. Generally, most research tends to indicate that people move within their own country rather than moving abroad. Confounding any data we might have, we are often unable to distinguish a farmer that moves to a city due to drought verses someone that believes that better employment opportunities exist within the city. Even on-the-ground, NGOs are often unable to accurately distinguish between what factors drive people to move.
Does this mean we shouldn’t worry about climate-based migration?
Climate change will definitely cause some people to have to migrate. However, knowing how many and to what extent is extraordinarily difficult. If your house was destroyed in a hurricane, would you stay there to try to rebuild? Would the fact that you may have lived there for your entire life sway you? What if you suspected that you would have to rebuild again after the next hurricane?
Would you try moving and, in doing so, abandon your friends and relatives that stay? Would you hope that a nearby city could provide better opportunities? What if you have your parents living with you? or young children? All of these factors make it difficult to model what we expect to happen as climate change drives more extreme weather conditions.
Some research has shown that migration tends to actually decrease following environmental disasters. It’s possible that people get attached to locations and, in periods of emotional distress, will choose to stay there rather than migrate to a possibly safer location. In cases where poverty is a major issue, even less migration is seen as people simply cannot afford to move after losing what little they did have. As there are numerous scenarios where families may or may not move, it is almost impossible to make accurate predictions going forward.
In a world deeply concerned with the social changes brought about by immigration, it is critical that we understand the factors that climate-change driven migration will play in the future.
What’s this I’ve heard about the Syrian civil war being caused by climate change?
Syria is actually an excellent discussion topic for the purposes of this article. Syria underwent a massive drought that can be linked to climate change. This caused agriculture to declined resulting in farmers moving to cities in order to make ends meet. Since Assad did not do much in the way of improving things, the end result was a bunch of angry people in population centers that wanted change in the government. Based on the lack of available resources substantially raising tensions, we now see that region engulfed in civil war.
We can’t quite pin the civil war on climate change, however. If climate change was the only cause, we would expect to see other countries in the region engulfed in civil war. However, it can be considered to be a major contributing factor.
Humans are resilient. Management of these disasters plays a massive influence on the response. In the case of Syria’s neighbors, they simply handled the drought much better. Cooperation between local and national groups most likely prevented other countries such as Jordan from seeing the same violence as in Syria. There are other factors in play ranging from cultural values to economic strength. However, one driving factor that is often repeated is migration from farming communities into urban environments.
As migration from outlying areas increases the population density in cities, we tend to see more pronounced resource shortages in those areas. Jobs become harder to find and city services are often stretched beyond their capacity. As a result, we see a negative feedback loop where the city falls into decline. This breeds violence which manifested in the form of a civil war in the case of Syria.
Going forward, one should consider the impact of a rapidly changing global climate on the risk of social unrest. Social unrest can often spill across borders which can result in damage to otherwise unaffected areas.
If we know this is going to happen, what can we do to prevent it?
Other than trying to minimize the impact of anthropogenic climate change through all the normal methods you would expect me to list, we can prepare for what we know will happen. Climate tends to be a slow moving change that can take decades to show up. We’re likely already committed to the changes we will see over the next century. In the short-term, we have to decide how we’re going to handle the changes we will see regardless of how much carbon we cut.
Our best bet is with social programs to dampen the impact of extreme weather. Severe droughts must be met with government subsidies until the area stabilizes. Destroyed infrastructure must be rebuilt and hardened against future failure if the area is still viable. As we see rising sea levels along the coast, plans must be made to shift populations as necessary to prevent a mass outflow of people.
The primary role of the governments of the world in these situations will be to provide stability.
What do we do as a society going forward?
Going forward, we generally are only left with a binary solution: either we take action or we do not.
Assuming that we do nothing, we continue down the path of tightening immigration restrictions, improving our own infrastructure to cope with climate change, and clamping down on society to minimize social unrest. We maintain our status quo and express our horror at the rest of the world’s condition over social media. There will likely be social collapse in at-risk locations as governments are overwhelmed with drought, famine, and resource-based warfare. We may allow for a token amount of refugees to enter our countries but most fleeing their drought-wracked homelands will not make it. Isolated first-world nations will not see the worst impacts as we will be able to use our wealth to protect us. Countries facing war will not be so lucky. There is always the wildcard of a nuclear power attacking another nation or being attacked; however, such things are impossible to predict.
Alternatively, we could do something.
Since we know that there is a high risk for an international migration crisis, we could instead make an unprecedented effort to invest resources into mitigation programs. We could fund systems to allow farmers to preemptively adapt to climate change. This would require international cooperation not seen since the 1940s. This would require us to set up a global system for mitigating climate change’s impact on each nation while still maintaining the sovereignty of each nation. As a species, we would divest ourselves from carbon emissions to the maximum extent possible while accepting the reduction in our quality of life that this would entail. This would require an increase in taxes paid by individuals while dedicating national resources to an international effort.
I deeply hope that humanity chooses the second option.