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29 October 2022

A new age of climate migration

In Nomad Century, Gaia Vince argues we must prepare now for environmental migration on an unprecedented scale.

By Philippa Nuttall

For those still trying to convince themselves that the impacts of climate change are overstated, this summer was an alarm call. Unbearable heatwaves, record-breaking droughts, and devastating floods and forest fires continue to cause havoc around the globe. Such extreme weather is the result of 1.2°C of warming above pre-industrial levels. With most scientific studies projecting 3°C or more of heating by 2100, the science writer Gaia Vince argues that we must accept that parts of the world will become uninhabitable. It is, she writes, our moral duty to plan for, and enable, mass migration to more liveable areas. 

In the opening chapters of Nomad Century, the reader is subjected to a necessary but relentless barrage of shocking facts and figures. Vince cites how in the United States in 2020, 1.7 million people were displaced by extreme weather conditions. America’s climate migrants include those displaced by major events such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005; people whose lives, livelihoods and housing have been threatened or destroyed by forest fire; and those whose daily existence has become untenable because of regular flooding, wildfires or heatwaves.

“The US now averages a billion-dollar disaster every 18 days,” writes Vince. Globally, there could be as many as 1.5 billion environmental migrants in the next 30 years. “Even at a global temperature rise of below 2°C, at least a billion people would have to move,” she says. At 4°C hotter, this figure will grow exponentially as the world becomes “more hostile” and huge areas become uninhabitable and infertile. Few places will be spared from months of unbearable heat, but it is the equatorial parts of the world, such as the Indian subcontinent and parts of Africa, where worsening heatwaves will mean people have no choice but to leave or die.  

[See also: Who is to blame for 30 years of climate change inertia?]

Cutting greenhouse gas emissions quickly and deeply is a priority, but accepting and enabling migration is vital to help those most impacted by climate change, argues Vince. “Migration will save us, because it is migration that made us who we are,” she writes. In fact, it may be “essential” for human societies, providing labour, cultural and genetic complexity and social networks that facilitate groundbreaking achievements.

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The idea of keeping foreigners out is a relatively recent concept, she adds – largely the result of borders being redrawn and the nation state gaining primacy at the end of the First World War. Vince acknowledges, however, that the global discourse on migration is moving in the opposite direction to her thesis. 

Climate change will require large-scale “lawful, safe, planned and facilitated migration”. To manage such significant human movement, Vince calls for a UN International Organisation for Migration “with real powers” to compel governments to accept refugees. Everyone could be offered UN citizenship at birth, while work visas could require migrants to participate in community service and take up training and language learning to help with integration. New cities will need to be built in currently desolate parts of the world, such as the Arctic, to house people forced to move away from the equator, coastlines, small islands, and arid or desert regions.

At a time of increasingly narrow-minded nationalistic rhetoric, her proposals sound extreme and unachievable. But Vince believes that failure to plan for the mass movement of people would amount to a “moral abhorrence” by those richer nations that will be less affected by a warming world and that have greater means to deal with the consequences. Such a dereliction of duty would also likely lead to “an enormous loss of life, of terrible wars and misery, as the wealthy erect barriers against the poorest”, warns Vince.  

Aware that many will simply dismiss her premise as “implausible” or “impractical”, Vince urges readers to approach her book with an open mind. After a summer of climate catastrophes, not least the appalling floods that left a third of Pakistan under water at the end of August, now should be the moment to consider radical solutions. It remains to be seen whether the UK government has the courage to face up to the reality of climate change or migration. Most politicians don’t. The result of such continued ignorance could be calamitous.

Nomad Century: How to Survive the Climate Upheaval
By Gaia Vince
Allen Lane, 288pp, £20

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[See also: A creed for the anthropocene – Rowan Williams]

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This article appears in the 19 Oct 2022 issue of the New Statesman, State of Emergency