The Dark Side of Climate Change

The most recent report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned yhat climate change is currently imperiling the world’s food and water supplies. Not surprisingly, food shortages are likely to affect the poorer parts of the world far more drastically than the richer parts. While the humanitarian disaster that could result, with a half-billion people living in places that are turning into desert, is truly tragic, the socio-political consequences that result are already having an impact to destabilize political systems in the first world.

Immigration has become a hot-button issue for the right throughout the west, with populist leaders from Donald Trump to Boris Johnson, to Marine Le Pen railing against the influx of immigrants from parts of the world suffering from famine, or war. Unfortunately, the politics of fear that is promoting the rise of autocratic politicians is producing policies that are likely making the problems far worse. It is hard to see how this vicious cycle will easily end. Consider the situation in Central America. A year and a half ago I convened an event in Mexico City to discuss the impacts of climate change, and what we might do to address the problems it raises.

According to the CIA World Factbook, 13.4 per cent of Mexico’s labor force is involved in agriculture, whereas only 0.7 percent of the US population works in this sector. Of all industries perhaps agriculture is most sensitive to changes in climate, in particular to the level of rainfall and the availability of fresh water.

If there were a currently existing cushion, then sensitivity to increasing droughts in Mexico might be less of a problem. However, water is already at a premium. The country has been living with decades long droughts and several studies have found a significant relationship between rainfall decline and outward migration.

And the problem is not easily solved through migration from rural to urban areas within the country. Mexico City was built atop an ancient clay lake bed, and the constant drilling necessary to provide fresh water for even a fraction of the more than 20 million people living in the metropolitan area is literally causing the city to sink. Between 2014 and 2015 areas near the center of the city sank as much as 20 centimeters in its continued thirst for water, and in spite of this the government accepts that nearly 20 percent of Mexico City residents can’t count on getting water when they turn on their taps each day.

These problems, and the pressures they put on illegal migration northward will only be exacerbated by climate change. Severe droughts interrupted by periodic intense storms and flooding will produce a great challenge. One study suggests that by 2080, agricultural declines are expected to drive 1.4 to 6.7 million adult Mexicans out of the country. Another suggests that as much as 10 percent of adult Mexicans between the ages of 15 and 65 could attempt to emigrate north as a result of rising temperatures, droughts, and floods.

Moreover, there are arguments to suggest that the impact of climate change on rural incomes preferentially encourages undocumented illegal immigration. If droughts affect rural households, the urgent need to attempt a stable income stream by sending a family member as a migrant to obtain a steady, even if poor paying job, is not compatible with the demands of visa applications, which can take years to complete.

This problem is not unique to Mexico. As Pete Smith, one of the IPCC report’s lead authors put it, “People don’t stay and die where they are. People migrate”. Earlier this summer Nicholas Kristof wrote a wrenching piece in the New York Times about a woman in Guatemala who has lost a husband who died following migration to the US and two children who died of malnutrition, but who now is encouraging her 11 year old to migrate. “Food doesn’t grow here anymore”, she said, “That’s why I would send my son north”. Her story is not unique. The number of migrants from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras—all affected by drought—increased by a factor of five between 2010 and 2015.

Worldwide, the problem may be even worse. The International Displacement Monitoring Center reports that since 2008, an average of 26.4 million people per year have been displaced from their homes by natural disasters. Climate change will not only make this situation worse. Different studies estimate that by 2050 there will be between 200 million and 700 million climate refugees.

It is remarkable that the countries that may be most impacted by the pressures of tens of millions of climate migrants seem to be the ones most determined to avoid dealing with the underlying problems promoting illegal immigration.

Australia’s government too has continued to move backward on its earlier commitments to reduce carbon emissions, and at the same time that government has held a brutal line against illegal immigrants fleeing famine and poverty by housing them in degrading offshore detention camps. If Australia is concerned about the current flood of immigrants, just wait. Rising sea levels are likely to preferentially impact on hundreds of millions living in poor equatorial regions, including in Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Indonesia. From their vantage point, Australia seems particularly attractive.

And in the US, President Trump continues to deny the existence or likely impacts of climate change, and his administration continues to roll back efforts to combat it. But the Pentagon has been quite clear about at least one of the impacts. In their 2003 Net Assessment Report on the national security implications of abrupt climate change they issued a prescient warning:

“The United States and Australia are likely to build defensive fortresses around their countries because they have the resources and reserves to achieve self-sufficiency. With diverse growing climates, wealth, technology, and abundant resources, the United States could likely survive shortened growing cycles and harsh weather conditions without catastrophic losses. Borders will be strengthened around the country to hold back unwanted starving immigrants from the Caribbean islands (an especially severe problem), Mexico, and South America.”

While addressing the global challenge of climate change is beyond the means of any single country, it is possible to help mediate the impacts of climate change. The IPCC report offers some hope of addressing famine by altering land use and agriculture worldwide. But while there is significant evidence that aiding farmers to adjust to climate change will reduce the pressures to emigrate, but the Trump administration is cutting such aid programs.

Rich countries like the US or Australia may be able to insulate themselves from immigration pressures arising from climate change by building walls, moats, or detention camps—basically becoming huge inverse prisons designed to keep people from coming in rather than leaving. But the global the tensions produced by the displacement of tens or hundreds of millions of people worldwide will be harder to avoid.

A Columbia University report found that where rainfall declines, for example, “the risk of a low-level conflict escalating to a full-scale civil war approximately doubles the following year.” There are many who have argued that just such a scenario in Syria helped prompt that nation’s civil war, and the rise of ISIS. One could similarly imagine how increasing tensions arising in India and Pakistan, for example, each of which has a significant arsenal of nuclear weapons, could result in a local war with a global impact.

But even if such local or global conflagrations are avoided, the pressure to hold the ramparts firm against a rising tide of climate migrants could easily continue to push modern democracies in more more autocratic directions. If we bury our heads in the sand, even as climate change exacerbates problems in the world’s poorest regions, we are likely to drown, if not by rising seas, then by a flood of other human problems.

Lawrence M. Krauss, a theoretical physicist, is the President of the Origins Project Foundation, and the host of The Origins Podcast. His most recent book is "The Greatest Story Ever Told.. So Far".

© 2018 Lawrence M. Krauss