And Then There’s Physics highlights a Guardian article titled “Mass Migration is no ‘crisis’: It’s the new normal as the climate changes.” The Guardian piece gets it badly wrong. ATTP, unusually, provides useful nuance and shows some honest thinking.
The Guardian writes, “There is only one problem with calling this phenomenon of migration a crisis, and that is that it’s not temporary: it’s permanent. Thanks to global climate change, mass migration could be the new normal.
There are lots of estimates as to what we can expect to see in the near future, but the best known (and controversial) figure comes from Professor Norman Myers, who argues that climate change could cause 200 million people to be displaced by 2050.”
And later in the piece, “So what do we do about climate migration? The first step is to change our perceptions. We need to process the fact that migration isn’t going to go away or be “solved”. In all likelihood, it will become more common; a new normal.”
ATTP has the grace to add a quote from Richard Seager, “We’re not saying drought caused the [Syrian conflict]. We’re saying that added to all the other stressors, it helped kick things over the threshold into open conflict. And a drought of that severity was made much more likely by the ongoing human-driven drying of that region.” I would agree with that, with the proviso that the attribution of additional stress to climate change might be about 1%.
As I wrote in March of this year, there is no rising trend in drought. The IPCC acknowledges that and says that some areas may start to experience more frequent and more intense droughts in the future.
Syria’s drought is not exceptional. It has been exacerbated by the construction of dams in Turkey that hold water back from Syria and the doubling of the Syrian population in the past 25 years.
The refugees are fleeing a brutal civil war. Other nations in the region with other troubles, from Iraq to Lebanon, have managed to weather the weather without sending millions of people to other shores.
The reason I’m bringing this all to your attention is that ATTP asks some interesting questions in his post. I will provide my answers below his bullet points–I’m interested in yours.
ATTP writes, “In my view, there are a number of questions that this issue raises.”
- If we’re viewing the current migration situation as a crisis, how are we going to cope if it’s further exaccerbated by climate change? Some studies suggest a significant increase in the number of people being displaced as a consequence of climate change.
- Tom writes: The situation for two years after the Second World War was a migration crisis, with a far higher percentage of the world’s population in movement. The current situation is a problem, not a crisis. The number of refugees rose by 8.3 million last year, reaching 60 million, less than 1% of the world’s population. When the commissioner of the UNHCR held a press conference to lament this, he mentioned conflict and economics–not climate change. I believe a handful of people have claimed to be climate refugees–some of their claims were denied.
- What does this situation imply with respect to some people’s arguments about adaptation? Some level of adaptation is clearly unavoidable, but there are some who argue that we can adapt to almost anything that will arise in the coming century, including that people can simply move if they need to. Well, this situation seems to suggest that people may well be able to move, but it’s not clear that they’re typically welcomed by those who live in the regions to which they’d like to move.
- Tom writes: Tol & Yohe estimate that 0.23% of habitable land area is at risk from 50cm of sea level rise, so that is unlikely to cause mass migration. Drought and flooding have always caused temporary movement of people–it is likely to continue to do so. But most who flee one-off events, including large storms, return when the situation returns to normal. As for social acceptance, migrants have rarely been welcomed by native inhabitants anywhere at any time. In the U.S., people got to change the ‘I’ in NINA from Irish to Italian and leave the same signs in their shop windows. But they adapt.
- What about the moral issue? Climate change is a global issue, but emissions are not equally distributed across the globe. Some regions emit much more than others. This, however, does not mean that those regions are more likely to suffer the consequences of climate change. If anything, there is evidence to suggest that some regions that will suffer most, are regions that have emitted least.
- Tom writes: This is why addressing poverty, food security, access to clean water and above all access to reliable energy is so important. In addition, assisting economic development is the best reparations the developed world can offer to poorer countries that may have to deal with an unequal impact of climate change. Resilience first.
- What does this imply with respect to a carbon tax? I’m all in favour of a carbon tax and it does appear to be an option that is favoured by many. A carbon tax, however, is not introduced to explicitly reduce emissions; it is simply intended to properly price carbon emissions. The idea is that it includes all the costs, including externalities. Hence if there is some cheaper alternative, that will probably be adopted. If not, we’ll simply continue to pay for our emissions. However, this still seems to imply that wealthy regions could be choosing to pay for emissions that will negatively impact other regions that are insufficiently wealthy to cope with the consequences.
- Tom writes: I also am in favor of a carbon tax. Its primary advantage is that it allows us to treat the emissions problem as settled and move on to the rest of the developmental agenda. The rich world should move first on reducing emissions, primarily by cleaning up electricity generation. The faster we help the poorer countries to improve their standard of living, the faster they will commit their own resources to improving the environment and combating climate change.
If warming this century comes in at 2C, as I think, normal technological innovation and economic growth will provide us with the tools the world needs to not only protect those most vulnerable to climate change, but also to remedy the non-climatic causes that have driven 60 million people from their homes.
That’s business as usual.