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The Great Climate Exodus

The Great Climate Exodus

Humans have always been a relentlessly mobile species. But climate change is accelerating the number of people fleeing drought and disaster. How will developed nations respond?

Exactly how much migration is happening as a result of climate change? It’s not an easy question to answer: migration is multicausal and attribution is notoriously complex. But that hasn’t deterred researchers at the World Bank, who last week published the most comprehensive study to date modelling the impact of climate change on human movement. As world leaders convene at the UN General Assembly this week ahead of Cop26 in November, it’s in their interest to pay attention to the report’s key findings:

  • Failure to address the climate crisis could result in the internal displacement of 216 million people by 2050. That’s nearly three times the number currently displaced by conflicts around the world.
  • But early and concerted efforts to cut emissions could reduce the scale of climate-induced migration within countries by 80 per cent. 
  • Roughly a third of those displaced in a year are forced to move by “sudden onset” weather events – flooding, forest fires, and intensified storms. The rest move due to long-term environmental changes such as desertification, sea-level rise, ocean acidification, air pollution, rain pattern shifts and loss of biodiversity.

There’s a growing body of evidence to suggest that climate change is becoming a leading factor in the movement of people across borders, too. “Hotspots” include:

  • Central America, where desertification and drought in countries like Guatemala and Honduras has potential to drive 30 million toward the US border over the next 30 years.
  • North Africa and the Sahel, where water stress is pushing people from rural areas into coastal cities. (Related, and worth bearing in mind: ​​the Red Cross warns that 96 per cent of future urban growth will happen in some of the world’s most fragile cities.)
  • Eastern Russia, where the opportunity presented by melting permafrost has spurred Chinese and Mongolian farmworkers to move northwards seeking work on newly arable land.

Leaders have been remarkably myopic when it comes to addressing the causes and impacts of climate-induced migration, and lack of data is now no excuse. The OECD released figures this week showing that last year wealthy countries fell $20 billion short of the $100 billion pledged to help developing nations adapt. What’s more, 70 per cent of the public financing is loans rather than grants, raising the spectre of even more debt for developing nations. Boris Johnson rated the effort a 6 out of 10. That’s generous.

The legal status of those fleeing environmental disasters also warrants clarification. The Geneva Convention does not include climate refugees within the scope of its protection (due to lack of a persecutor or some form of direct discrimination). There are, however, a few signs that climate migration is beginning to be recognised internationally:

  • In December last year, a court in France overturned the deportation order of a Bangladeshi man with asthma on the grounds that it was likely to deteriorate if he was forced to return and be exposed to poor air quality.
  • In 2016, Ioane Teitiota, a man from the Pacific nation of Kiribati, brought a case against New Zealand at the UN Human Rights Committee after authorities denied his claim of asylum as a climate refugee. Last year, the UNHRC ruled that deportation would violate his right to life, even if the threat of harm was not imminent e.g. sea-level rise.

More recently, President Biden issued an executive order for a report to be produced on “options for protection and resettlement of individuals displaced directly or indirectly from climate change”. The order may have been prompted by census data showing that Americans are actually moving into at-risk areas. What’s needed is a national strategy for managing displacement.

As for the UK, there is next to no public information about the government’s position on climate migration. The home secretary’s “New Plan for Immigration” policy statement does not mention “climate migrants” or the “climate” at all.

Will the issue get airtime at Cop26 and UNGA? As our colleague Ellen Halliday noted last week, if delegates from developing nations continue to be unfairly excluded because they don’t have access to vaccines, there’s a risk that these issues won’t get a hearing. That would be a grave error.

For most of human history, migration flows have tended to be east-west and vice versa. Climate change now drives people north and southwards. Developed nations have a choice about how to respond to that shift: they can choose a hot world full of fences, or a cooler, connected one.


Gas price spike
Kwasi Kwarteng, the UK’s business secretary, promises the lights will stay on and there’ll be no return to a 70s-style three-day week. That’s called moving the goalposts. Of course the lights will stay on. The government will let a few small energy companies go to the wall because of wholesale gas prices they can’t afford, and will bail out the bigger ones until the spike has passed. Why is there a spike? The FT’s leader puts it concisely: “A perfect storm of natural gas production problems, geopolitics, and unfavourable weather for renewables has combined with an unexpectedly strong pick-up in demand…” What the paper doesn’t address is the UK’s retail gas price cap, currently about £400 below the wholesale price of the gas needed to heat a home for a year. When the government hands out loans to bridge that gap it will be subsidising gas and shielding consumers from its true cost, albeit ultimately at their own expense. Gas is the least carbon intensive fossil fuel but – let’s look on the bright side – this is at least a timely lesson in the true cost of hydrocarbons. Another reason to pledge at Cop26 to find other ways to keep warm.


Bad subsidies
The meat and dairy industries get the bulk of the world’s agricultural subsidies and produce the bulk of the farming sector’s greenhouse gas emissions. They in turn amount to a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions. The agricultural sector as a whole accounts for 70 per cent of biodiversity loss and 80 per cent of deforestation and it’s not as if the outcome for humans is healthy or fair. Three billion people can’t afford a healthy diet while two billion are obese or overweight. In a world of rational governance the way we feed ourselves would be due massive structural reform. Will it happen? No, but at least the UN has laid out the basic parameters of the problem so that no one attending this week’s food systems summit at the UN general assembly in New York can plead ignorance. A new report says 90 per cent of the $540 billion in farm subsidies worldwide are harmful to people and / or the planet, and that this number will rise to $1.8 trillion a year by 2030 in a business as usual scenario. Can we really junk the meat and dairy habit as a species, when China is just acquiring it?

Science and tech

Talk vs walk
Big tech companies are avid lobbyists but on climate policy, they are noticeably disengaged. Apple, Amazon, Alphabet, Facebook and Microsoft spent $65m on lobbying in 2020 – just 6 per cent of which was related to climate, according to the latest analysis from InfluenceMap. It’s surprising given that all five companies have put forward genuinely ambitious net zero targets: Apple has committed to carbon neutrality across its supply chain by 2030 while Microsoft is undertaking to remove all of its historic emissions. You might expect them to be interested in backing the carbon-cutting measures put forward in Biden’s $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill. Instead, all of them bar Apple are members of the US Chamber of Commerce – an industry lobbying group that’s fiercely opposed to the package.

Engagement and activism

Glue yourself to the M25 or build a beautiful wooden ark on a Scottish hillside? The methods British climate activists are using to ring the alarm are becoming more varied by the day. Yesterday, a total of 76 arrests had been made in relation to the actions of Insulate Britain – a group that has spent much of the past week blocking London’s orbital motorway, demanding that the government insulate all social housing by 2025. Meanwhile, David Blair, a member of the Extinction Rebellion Tighnabruaich, located in western Scotland, is building a 20 metre-long boat frame made of European larch to raise awareness of rising tides ahead of Cop26. When the council asked him if it was there to stay he responded by saying it was as permanent as “humanity won’t be if we don’t take action on the climate”.

Do share this around, and let us know what you think of it.

Thanks for reading.

Barney Macintyre

Giles Whittell

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