by Stu Lucy

Immigration is a complex concept., Sophisticated issues such as this are often reduced to simplistic and narrow trails of thought that exclude some of the intricacies vital in understanding the true scope of the issue. In my previous article, I attempted a brief, but lengthy, outline of aspects of economic history that I believe laid a foundation for the increase in migrants choosing to leave their home behind in search of a life they perceive could potentially produce prosperity. Intrinsically entwined into this history is a mechanism of production that, since the ‘great acceleration’, significantly contributes to environmental changes within our global habitat.

It is through this lens that I wish to proceed with this second piece on immigration, as I touch on a demographic within migrant populations forced from their homes by climate change.

Global temperature increase is a reality that the millennial generation, and all those that follow, will be forced to accept and factor into our individual and collective lives. With near unanimous consensus amongst climatologists and the wider scientific community, we are told that we have already ‘locked’ in temperature rises of over 1 degree Celsius, with this number set to rise as we continue to extrapolate and incinerate ever larger quantities of fossil fuels and quell our veracious appetite for red meats.

Discounting any future discoveries, we already have the ability to consume a quantity 5 times the ‘safe’ limit needed to for civilisation to survive, and that’s just carbon.

350.org succinctly present three numbers with which to easily understand climate change: 2, 565 and 2,795. The first relates to the degrees of warming that (most of) the global community have agreed to aim to stay below in the future. While many, including myself, argue that this is still too high, it’s all we have so far – so for the sake of expediency, for now, let’s go with it. The second, 565, relates to the limit of carbon in gigatonnes which can be ‘safely’ expelled to stay under 2 degrees, with estimates of our current annual contribution somewhere in the 30’s. The final number is the one we must pay the most attention to, it relates to the amount of proven reserves the ‘big six’ oil companies currently have access to. Discounting any future discoveries, we already have the ability to consume a quantity 5 times the ‘safe’ limit needed to for civilisation to survive, and that’s just carbon. We should be worried. Very, very, worried.

(via 350.org. Thanks to Dr. Kimberly Nicholas for putting it so simply.)

The West remains relatively insulated from the likely consequential effects of increased release of carbon and methane emissions into the atmosphere; our lower temperatures, advanced infrastructure as well as accumulated wealth –  both personally and nationally – puts us in good stead to deal with more frequent and extreme weather events. The same cannot be said however for most of the developing world, least of all the majority of African nations.

With no exact numbers available to assess the impact of climate on forced migration, we rely on future forecasts, which are at best bleak. The Institute for Environment and Human Security of the United Nations University estimate that by 2050, 1 billion people will identify as climate migrants –  that’ll be 1 in 9 of us. This is a huge problem. The majority of African nations have in common numerous factors that make the effects of climate change more pernicious; weak institutions and governance make adaption and response to major climate events less efficient, weak infrastructure results in further difficulty in this regard and high poverty rates mean reduced capacity to deal with climate induced shocks, such as food or water shortages.

now find even this modest and difficult way of life untenable

The situation surrounding Lake Chad offers a microcosm of the difficulties faced across the continent. Having shrunk over 90% since the 1960’s, currently over 7 million people that rely on the water source for agriculture, fishing, livestock sustenance and drinking water are now food insecure, with 2.5 million displaced from the surrounding area. Drought continues to persist in many nations across the continent including Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia and Angola, to name just a few. Individuals living in these areas, already faced with an economic system unable to provide reasonable occupational opportunities and reliant on agriculture for a subsistence lifestyle, now find even this modest and difficult way of life untenable. As a result, developed countries with cooler climates, better infrastructure and more wealth from which to claim a piece of the pie, become incredibly appealing to the numerous groups of people displaced across Africa as a consequence of the changing climate.

(2013. Edited ISS038 image of Lake Chad (or what’s left of it) from over Niger, looking south. Credit: Stuart Rankin / Flickr)

Although on the surface economic and climate migrants appear to face differing challenges leading to decisions to move to more prosperous and climatically safer areas, the underlying systemic cause is identical. The very free market economic behemoth that has swept across the West, exploiting resources and labour from developing countries to use as inputs, simultaneously produced environmentally devastating outputs that unequally affect these areas of the world in disproportionate amounts. Oil continues to be used as our fundamental fuel source and so will continue to fuel fundamental changes to our environment.

If we wish to preserve the already fragile and degraded biosphere that we all call home, we must aggressively decarbonise developed economies while incentivising developing countries to not follow in our foolish footsteps. Only then may we even begin to hope to reduce the damaging effects our way of life has upon those living in areas of the world least responsible for their ever present and immediate environmental destruction.

Featured image: Garry Knight / Flickr.

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