There’s No Containment Strategy for Climate Change

September 1, 2020

The earliest humans had it rough. They survived a brutal ice age, dwindling to a population estimated at just 10,000, only to experience terrible droughts when the ice began to retreat. So they engaged in the oldest climate adaptation strategy in history: They moved.

This first great human migration out of the Horn of Africa happened some 60,000 years ago, and it was disruptive. Everywhere homo sapiens went, they overwhelmed other hominins, setting the genetic foundation for all modern societies around the world. A wildly successful species, humans now number 7.8 billion, consuming habitat and destroying other species at an increasingly fast clip.



In fact, that catastrophic success has set the stage for the next great human migration, once again driven by an unfavorable climate. Over the next 50 years, as many as 3 billion people may be living in increasingly dangerous hot conditions, and a large number may decide to move. This time, the mass migration has the potential to be even more disruptive than its prehistoric predecessor, given how many more people there are now. Just how disruptive that move will be depends a great deal on how the people in the more temperate parts of the world react, and how wealthier populations within those countries handle unequal exposure to climate impacts, both within their own borders and globally.

Climate change affects every nation on the planet, but in general, temperate-zone countries — much of North America, most of Europe and China, and parts of India, South America, and Oceania — will fare relatively better for much of this century. Any number of tipping points could change that picture quickly, however, such as the collapse of the Antarctic ice sheet. The latest research from Greenland suggests that there is definitely cause for concern when it comes to melting ice. Even without the worst-case scenarios, though, the middle latitudes will not have it easy. Hurricane Harvey in the United States and the recent flooding in China offer a preview of how costly and difficult climatological disasters are even for big economies. India has very densely populated cities and high vulnerability to natural disasters, and is struggling with the highest numbers of internally displaced people in the world. The Indian government’s approach to dealing with internal migration already falls short of the country’s commitments to human rights.

Slower-onset climate changes will be disruptive, as well. Agricultural productivity, for example, is likely to fall in many places, because of droughts, higher temperatures, and generally more volatile weather. Global agricultural productivity also will shift northward, meaning that some of today’s farm communities may be tomorrow’s ghost towns.

For such small, vulnerable countries as the island nations of Oceania, this climate shift may be existential, regardless of whether they are in the temperate or torrid zones of the Earth. Their experience may well be an early warning of the coming difficulties of migration as a strategy for dealing with climate change. As soon as 2030, sea level rise, saltwater intrusion, and more destructive cyclonic storms will pose an overwhelming threat to many of these low-lying Pacific islands and territories, even as warming oceans are undermining fisheries. While there are some possible engineering solutions, they are expensive, and it’s unclear where the money will come from. This is not a large population to relocate — the total population of Oceania is 3 million — but it is a large number to absorb, as Australia’s reluctance to take in present-day refugees suggests. More to the point, evacuating the population means the destruction of an entire culture and way of life. This is more than an abstract moral question for the United States, which has legal responsibilities for the populations of the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, and the Republic of Palau — nearly 200,000 people — as well as for more than 250,000 U.S. citizens in Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa. For that matter, both Guam and Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands are home to strategically significant U.S. military bases, and there is little evidence of a U.S. strategy for managing climate change at these locations.

There are strong equity concerns within temperate countries, too, given that the populations most susceptible to impacts of climate change, such as coastal flooding, are also most likely to suffer from social and economic disadvantages and racial discrimination. Native American communities in Louisiana and Alaska are already being forced to move by climate-change-related factors, for example, without adequate resources. Almost half of those who fled New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina did not return after the storm, especially black residents of the city. A decade later, the population was still only 80 percent of its pre-Katrina level. The Houston area was a top destination for many of these displaced persons, who were hit again by Hurricane Harvey in 2017, which had a disproportionate effect on black Houstonians. Like the recent rates of COVID-19 infection and mortality rates in general, this vulnerability tracks back to systemic discrimination in complex ways, including such practices as redlining, which denies mortgages and other financing to specific groups. Such practices have historically pushed African Americans into less desirable neighborhoods and housing, including homes in low-lying areas vulnerable to flooding. Even given the well-established vulnerability of coastal populations, the United States has done little to prepare for the increase in internally displaced people.

The inequity within U.S. borders mirrors the global impacts of climate change, which will disproportionately affect countries in the subtropical and tropical parts of the globe. That puts most of the population of Africa in the climate change crosshairs, as well as hundreds of millions of people in South Asia, the Middle East, South America, and Central America. Many of the affected countries, especially in Africa, have growing, high-density populations with high societal vulnerabilities, as measured by per capita income, life expectancy, maternal health and infant mortality, access to clean water, and other factors. The reasons for the disparity with mid-latitude countries are complex, but include centuries of disadvantageous interaction with the forces of industrialization that largely caused climate change in the first place.

Traditionally, displaced people stay relatively close to home, but if climate change worsens conditions to the point that basic survival is in question, people who can move will move, and people who cannot may be left in increasingly dire conditions. Furthermore, if worsening conditions inflame already unstable situations, they may catalyze violence and conflict, which historically make more people move faster and farther. In that sense, climate change interacts with other drivers of instability, such as corruption, unequal access to power, a history of enmity, and inadequate or unequal access to natural resources. In the past, the Pentagon has referred to climate change as an “instability accelerant” because of the way it interacts with other root causes of war.

Many migrants don’t particularly want to move, and the journeys are generally perilous, but the true danger is increasingly what they face when they arrive. Globally, immigration is unpopular, and violence against migrants is on the rise. China’s Ministry of Justice recently proposed a policy for admitting some high-value immigrants — and was met with a swift popular backlash. India, the world’s largest source of out-migration, is far less welcoming to inward movements, with barbed-wire fences along its borders with Bangladesh and Pakistan and a new restrictive citizenship law. Much of the European Union is meeting the ongoing influx of migrants with a range of discriminatory and inhumane policies. The European Union is also positioning itself to halt future climate migrants from the Sahel region of Africa, in particular, which climate change will hit especially hard. Even the United States, with the highest immigrant population in the world, is building a border wall, imprisoning migrants — including children — in inhumane conditions, and restricting and even barring immigration for a number of categories of workers. The most recent restrictions include the skilled H1B visa holders heavily employed by Big Tech. Climate change is already one of the factors driving increased migration from Central America and Mexico to the United States, and the current U.S. administration has slashed aid to all of these nations.

This rejection of migrants flies in the face of the evidence that these new arrivals generally make a positive contribution to the receiving communities. Furthermore, most of the mid-latitude nations’ populations are aging, many with too few young people to support too many elderly. Japan, for example, has not succeeded in making enough new Japanese people the old-fashioned way, and the population contraction well underway there will make it hard for the country to sustain its position as one of the world’s top economies. It is in the interest not just of Japan, but also the United States, Europe, China, Russia, and other aging nations to welcome newcomers.

Moreover, there is an even bigger long-term potential opportunity, albeit an ominous one for what it says about the state of climate change. The vast territories of thawing permafrost — which will total an estimated 2.5 million square miles by the end of the century — may offer an entirely new frontier for settlement, though it is unclear if these lands will be suitable for human habitation. The permafrost that is already melting is subject to giant sinkholes, avalanches, and “thaw slumps,” where muddy land sinks away from an icy redoubt. And then there are the mosquito tornadoes. Beyond just the question of livability, melting permafrost also may be releasing large amounts of greenhouse gases and thawed pathogens, some known, such as anthrax, and some not seen in human history. Still, if the land can be reclaimed, Canada and Russia will see the biggest gains, along with the United States and Greenland.

In the meantime, the individuals lucky enough to be born in the mid-latitudes may think they don’t like migrants, but they need them, and there’s a well-established case that they have a debt to pay for damaging the global commons in the first place. Migration should be a legitimate part of climate adaptation, as it has been throughout human history, with a policy and political infrastructure that permits greater labor mobility, more legal immigration, and a safe remittance process. At the same time, the community of nations has to cooperate to make sure conditions are better for people who do not migrate. That means improvements in irrigation and water management, and electrification; more education for more young people; better health systems; equitable distribution of resources, and improved governance. It means prioritizing innovation in air conditioning, moving away from technology dependent on fossil fuels and other greenhouse gases. These may sound like “nice to do” policies, but they are not: People are going to move if they have no other choice — and they are already moving, in record numbers. The people left behind will suffer terribly without help, and the suffering will not stay contained.

The stage is set for the next great human migration, and it would be much better for all if this were a conscious and coordinated process rather than one dictated by suffering, hatred, and violence. But even if it’s possible to reconcile emptying temperate zones with growing populations in places afflicted by climate change, this huge resettlement will only be the first act. If the United States, China, and other industrial countries cannot find a way to cut greenhouse gas emissions in the next decade, then humans may well be competing for a shrinking swath of good land as soon as the end of this century. And there is no way to make that contraction anything other than destructive and ruthlessly unfair, within and across borders.



Sharon E. Burke is the director of the Resource Security Program at New America. Previously, she served as an assistant secretary of defense in the Obama administration.

Image: Ferdinand Reus