Settled human societies are an aberration. The world has witnessed, since the last glacial period ended more than 10,000 years ago, constant migration away from wars, droughts, famines, religious intolerance and misery. Worse may be yet to come, with the effects of climate change spurring further massive disruptive displacements. For each degree centigrade temperatures increase, up to 1bn people will need to migrate.
The population rollercoaster may bring economic and social benefits too. One of the offshoots could be a new wave of financial and economic innovation. Nomad Century, an ambitious book by environmental journalist Gaia Vince on climate change and forced migration, points out that migrants, if accepted and allowed to pay taxes, can help finance education, social security and healthcare systems. Spain, at least until recently, is cited as an example of a host country gaining from sensible migration policies. On the other hand, prejudice and laissez-faire policies can cause enormous perturbations, with migrants trapped in crime-ridden, high-rise slums and emigration opponents banding together for social and political protest.
Spelling out a half-dystopian, half-utopian view of the future, Vince batters the reader with a series of scenarios and case studies, running up to 2100. Timing is critical. UN roadmaps see the world in the position of the frog being gradually boiled alive. According to the ‘representative concentration pathway’ for greenhouse gas concentrations adopted by the intergovernmental panel on climate change, nothing really bad happens until 2050, when we cross the +2°C barrier. Then it is too late to avoid hitting +4°C to +6°C by 2100, with disastrous consequences.
These UN scenarios are looking increasingly outdated. A third of Pakistan is already underwater. Samples of the atmosphere from above lakes in eastern Brazil and East Africa show large potent methane accumulations, probably from uncontrollable algae blooms. We may already have passed a tipping point on the way to +6°C.
But western policies over the Russian war in Ukraine have shown that energy and food security trump climate change prevention. World leaders are veering away from prevention and moving to climate damage limitation. Countries are pressing ahead with unnecessary oil and gas exploitation and still building coal-fired power stations.
Vince cites India as a country reaching tipping point already this decade. It will, according to a report from the National Institution for Transforming India, have a ground water crisis in 21 major cities by 2025, affecting 100m people. By 2030, 40% of the population will have no access to drinking water. Provision of potable water always has priority over irrigation, with consequent implications for crop yields.
The other part of Vince’s equation is population growth. By 2100, Nigeria is projected to have a population of 800m, which its present political and economic infrastructure cannot support. Along with other sub-Saharan states, Nigeria will be plagued by alternating spells of drought and flooding. Migration will be one route out of this. But climate change will, by 2100, have freed the Arctic of summer ice and created new maritime trade routes to Asia. One intriguing possibility in 50 years is the emergence of circumpolar Nigerian cities, with major ports in Canada and Siberian Russia, populated and perhaps even run by migrants from Lagos.
Vance makes several proposals for supranational political and economic structures to facilitate migration. These are the least convincing part of her hypothesis. There is little evidence that nation-states will put aside perceived self-interest and consider the needs of the world community. Consider the large number of civil wars now raging or the oppression of powerless minorities. A return of Donald Trump or someone like him as the next US president could take an ‘America first’ mentality to a new level.
Already we see, at the extreme, colossal vanity projects like NASA’s ‘return to the moon’ project (estimated to cost $93bn) or the campaign to colonise the dead planet of Mars by US industrialist Elon Musk; he prices a one-way ticket at ‘less than $500,000’.
Vince could have emphasised the power of finance to prevent (and/or mitigate) climate change, a large omission. Fund managers are increasingly avoiding potentially stranded assets. Shareholders are convincing banks such as HSBC to divest oil and gas holdings. Regulators, central banks and auditors are paying far more attention to environmental, social and governance investment. Major insurers are unwilling to take on ESG risks in project finance. These sensitivities block many transactions but open up a fascinating number of new horizons. Presumably, the finance sector will leap at the chance to finance these new Arctic ports, if and when they are commissioned.
John Adams is Director, HR China and HR Financial, Green Recruitment and Training and Member of the OMFIF Advisory Board.
Nomad Century by Gaia Vince, Allen Lane, 2022.