Global population will continue to rise in the coming decades, peaking at perhaps 10 billion in the 2060s. Most of this increase will be in the tropical regions that are worst hit by climate catastrophe, causing people there to flee northwards. For example, more than 13 million Bangladeshis – nearly 10% of the population – are expected to have left the country by 2050.
The global north faces the opposite problem – a “top-heavy” demographic crisis, in which a large elderly population is supported by a too-small workforce. North America and Europe have 300 million people above the traditional retirement age (65+), and by 2050, the economic old-age dependency ratio there is projected to be at 43 elderly persons per 100 working persons aged 20–64. Cities from Munich to Buffalo will begin competing with each other to attract migrants.
Large populations will need to migrate, and not simply to the nearest city, but also across continents. Those living in regions with more tolerable conditions, especially nations in northern latitudes, will need to accommodate millions of migrants while themselves adapting to the demands of the climate crisis. Migration is not the problem; it is the solution.
The coming migration will involve the world’s poorest fleeing deadly heatwaves and failed crops. It will also include the educated, the middle class, people who can no longer live where they planned because it’s impossible to get a mortgage or property insurance; because employment has moved elsewhere. The Welsh capital, Cardiff, is projected to be two-thirds underwater by 2050.
The climate crisis has already uprooted millions in the US – in 2018, 1.2 million were displaced by extreme conditions, fire, storms and flooding; by 2020, the annual toll had risen to 1.7 million people. The US now averages a $1bn disaster every 18 days. By 2050, half a million existing US homes will be on land that floods at least once a year. More than half of the western US is facing extreme drought conditions.
Migration is not the problem; it is the solution. Nation states are an artificial social structure predicated on the mythology that the world is made of distinct, homogenous groups that occupy separate portions of the globe, and claim most people’s primary allegiance. The idea that a person’s identity and wellbeing is primarily tied to that of one invented national group is far-fetched, even if this is presupposed by many governments. Most people speak the languages of multiple groups, and ethnic and cultural pluralism is the norm.
In April 2021, Governor Kristi Noem tweeted: “South Dakota won’t be taking any illegal immigrants that the Biden administration wants to relocate. My message to illegal immigrants … call me when you’re an American.”
Consider that South Dakota only exists because thousands of undocumented immigrants from Europe used the Homestead Act from 1860 to 1920 to steal land from Native Americans without compensation or reparations. This kind of exclusive attitude from a leader weakens the sense of shared citizenship among all, creating divisions between residents who are deemed to belong and those who are not.
Immigration controls are regarded as essential – but for people, not stuff. Huge effort goes into enabling the cross-border migration of goods, services and money. Every year more than 11bn tonnes of stuff is shipped around the world – the equivalent of 1.5 tonnes per person a year – whereas humans, who are key to all this economic activity, are unable to move freely. Industrialised nations with big demographic challenges and important labour shortages are blocked from employing migrants who are desperate for jobs.
Within days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, EU leaders enacted an open-border policy for refugees fleeing the conflict, giving them the right to live and work across the bloc for three years, and helping with housing, education, transport and other needs. The policy undoubtedly saved lives but additionally, by not requiring millions of people to go through protracted asylum processes, the refugees were able to disperse to places where they could better help themselves and be helped by local communities. Across the EU, people came together in their communities, on social media, and through institutions to organise ways of hosting refugees. They offered rooms in their homes, collected donations of clothes and toys, set up language camps and mental health support – all of which was legal because of the open-border policy. This reduced the burden for central government, host towns and refugees alike.
Globally, this system of sealed borders and hostile migration policy is dysfunctional. It doesn’t work for anyone’s benefit.
In 2020, refugees around the world exceeded 100 million, tripling since 2010, and half were children. This means one in every 78 people on earth has been forced to flee. Registered refugees represent only a fraction of those forced to leave their homes due to war or disaster. In addition to these, 350 million people are undocumented worldwide, an astonishing 22 million in the US alone, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimates. These include informal workers and those who move along ancient routes crossing national borders – these are the people who increasingly find themselves without legal recognition, living on the margins, unable to benefit from social support systems. Today, the 50 million climate-displaced people already outnumber those fleeing political persecution.
The distinction between refugees and economic migrants is rarely a straightforward one, and further complicated by the climate crisis. While the dramatic devastation of a hurricane erasing whole villages can make refugees of people overnight, more often the impacts of climate breakdown on people’s lives are gradual – another poor harvest or another season of unbearable heat, which becomes the catalyst/crisis that pushes people to seek better locations.
As long as 4.2 billion people live in poverty and the income gap between the global north and south continues to grow, people will have to move – and those living in climate-impacted regions will be disproportionately affected. as environments grow ever more deadly, the world’s wealthiest countries spend more on militarising their borders – creating a climate “wall” – than they do on the climate emergency. The growth in offshore detention and “processing” centres for asylum seekers not only adds to the death toll, but is among the most repugnant features of the rich world’s failure to ease the impact of the climate crisis on the poorest regions. We must be alert to “climate nationalists” who want to reinforce the unequal allocation of our planet’s safer lands.
Climate change is in most cases survivable; it is our border policies that will kill people. Human movement on a scale never before seen will dominate this century. It could be a catastrophe or, managed well, it could be our salvation.