Climate Induced Migration Brings a Moral Call to Action

By: Patty L. Buchanan*

Scientists are able to measure and quantify the perilous rise in global mean temperatures caused by greenhouse gases.  Using climate models, they can predict risks to ecosystems, extreme weather events that bring severe heat, droughts, hurricanes, floods, and sea level rise connected to global warming.  Global warming changes habitats, which in turn compels migration of innumerable species.  One of the most vexing challenges is to fathom the unfathomable:  what will be the scale of the impact of global warming on human migration?  A groundbreaking journalistic report that was published this past week, “Where Will Everyone Go?” provides some insights.  Its overview on climate induced migration is a collaborative project that was published in the New York Times Magazine and Propublica, with support from the Pulitzer Center.

This new report is remarkable because it brings unprecedented supercomputing techniques to social/political science:  it uses big data analytics — more than 10 billion data points — to model possible scenarios involving complex human behaviors that are interconnected with such things as rising temperatures, food and water scarcity, unstable political systems, economic conditions, crime, social orders and border security.  The methodology for the report is explained here.

The author, Abrahm Lustgarten, says, “Should the flight away from hot climates reach the scale that current research suggests is likely, it will amount to a vast remapping of the world’s population.”  The study focuses on migration push factors from Central America and Mexico to the United States.  

But the report also recognizes that seismic migration forces are also being exerted in North Africa, where “extraordinary population growth and steep environmental decline are on a collision course,” a region where 150 million people are “threatened by rapid desertification, even more severe water shortages and deforestation.”  

It stresses that environmental pressures are similarly strong in South Asia, “where nearly one-fourth of the global population lives.”  The report explains that new “projections show high tides subsuming much of Vietnam by 2050 — including most of the Mekong Delton, now home to 18 million people — as well as parts of China and Thailand, most of southern Iraq and nearly all of the Nile Delta, Egypt’s breadbasket.  Many coastal regions of the United States are also at risk.”  

Aside from commentary in the report itself, I have been deeply moved by the scale of the locust infestation in East Africa, and beyond over the past year.  Locust swarms in the trillionswhich have been breeding at an extraordinary rate following one of the wettest years on record, have destroyed vast areas of crops where 20 million people face food insecurity.

“Where Will Everyone Go?” explains that climate induced human migration typically begins by drought or food insecurity that drives impoverished agriculturists out of the countryside to in-country urban areas.  These population shifts on a large and rapid scale result in overwhelmed and unsustainable urbanization.  Using the big data analytical models, researchers found that every one of the scenarios “points to a future in which climate change, currently a subtle disrupting influence, becomes a source of major disruption, increasingly driving the displacement of vast populations.”  At bottom, the report reminds us that there “is no more natural and fundamental adaptation to a changing climate than to migrate.”

This report is a fairly deep dive.  For readers who are especially interested in climate-induced migration trends, here are a few sources to learn even more:  

Book:  Tropic of Chaos, Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence by Christian Parenti, Nation Books (2011)

Book:  Climate Change and Migration, Security and Borders in a Warming World by Gregory White, Oxford University Press (2011)

Article:  Asylum Applications Respond to Temperature Fluctuations, by Anouch Missirian and Wolfram Schlenker; Science, 358, 1610-1614 (2017), 

Report:  Groundswell, Preparing for Internal Climate Migration, World Bank Group (2018) 

Film:  Age of Consequences, Jared P. Scott (Writer, Director, Producer) (2017)

A moral imperative comes with awareness of the hardships that will inevitably be endured when migration is induced by climate change, which serves as a threat multiplier alongside with food or water insecurity, political instability, failed states that are rife with violent crime, life threatening unsanitary conditions, severe poverty, family strain, and total desperation.

Croton100 strives to educate and advocate for our community to embrace our collective and individual responsibility to rapidly cut carbon emissions that contribute to perilous global warming.  Minimizing climate induced migration and the concomitant hardships are yet more reasons to decarbonize today.  Knowing full well the misery that will be wrought by climate induced migration, dragging our feet on adopting solutions mires us on muddy moral ground. 

*Patty L. Buchanan served 20 years in the U.S. Department of Justice in various positions handling immigration cases, including a couple of years as an Immigration Judge adjudicating asylum related claims by recent border arrivals. 

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