Of all the consequences of climate change, the one that is most likely to cause the greatest number of deaths is mass migration. There will be two types of migration: regional and local. Regional migration is migration across borders. Local migration is migration within borders, mainly urban coastal populations moving inland. This article will focus on regional migration.
Regional migration will occur as the tropics become too lethal to survive – unbearable heat, rising ocean levels, droughts, floods, starvation, and a breakdown of society as governments collapse under the strain of increasing expenses and decreasing revenues. The arrows on the map below indicate the locations where initial regional migration will occur. As the global temperature continues to increase, migration will proceed further north and south.
There will be ten major migration routes.
1. The Caribbean, Central America, and northern South America north to the United States.
2. Amazonia south to Paraguay, Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile.
3. Northern Africa north to Europe.
4. Central Africa south to southern Africa
5. The Middle East northwest to Europe.
6. The Indian subcontinent northwest to Central Asia and Europe.
7. Southeast Asia north to China, Korea, Japan, and Russia.
8. Malaysia and Indonesia south to Australia.
9. Polynesia and Melanesia to Australia and around the world.
10. Australia southeast to New Zealand.
All the migration will be from the tropics towards the temperate zones. Unlike other migrations that have been due to political conditions that persecute a subgroup within a population, climate change will force nearly everyone to seek asylum in less affected countries. This article will focus on the northerly migrations. These routes will encompass the great majority of climate refugees.
Route #1 – Migration from Central and South America and the Caribbean
The U.S. now has 40 million immigrants of which 10 million are undocumented. This is the cumulative total of all immigration. This number will pale by comparison to the number of climate refugees it may one day find standing at its southern border. It could encompass the majority of the population from the Caribbean, Central America, and the northern coast of South America – around 320 million people, almost as many as now live in the U.S.
The migration will build gradually as conditions worsen, but ultimately most of the population will be forced to escape. The U.S. could not survive an influx of tens or hundreds of millions of climate refugees. For its own survival it will have to stop them at the border, and with so many, it will have to deploy the military.
This confrontation between refugees and destination countries will have no compromise solution because refugees face death if they lose (and may face it anyway if they win) and the population of the destination countries face the chaotic and violent destruction of the economic, political, and social structures on which its survival depends. It is an existential conflict for both sides. This will lead to an endless spiral of increasing violence that could include organized military forces from the refugee countries. Despite the military advantages the U.S. holds, it is not a foregone conclusion that it could stave off such an assault. These circumstances will repeat themselves at every border that climate refugees must cross.
A humanitarian disaster of appalling proportions will unfold. Millions of men, women, and children will die from starvation, disease, violence, or misadventure, either en route or on our doorstep. This will bring on a crisis of conscience among those living in destination countries, but it will have no solution. It is an us-or-them situation. The value of life will inevitably be cheapened and the quality of life coarsened by these events, and this will undermine the morale of those living in destination countries at a time when it must be counted on for ensuring our survival against a world that will pose ever harsher challenges.
Routes #3 & #5 – Migration from the Middle East and North Africa
Europe is particularly vulnerable to migration. Unlike the U.S., Europe is a consortium of countries and may have a more difficult time establishing a uniform policy with respect to climate refugees. Europe also has a longer and more varied border to defend and it will be besieged by much greater numbers – 200 million from the Middle East and 600 million from northern Africa (and possibly a few hundred million from India who make their way to Europe through the Middle East or the Balkans). Add to this the fact that the Middle East has long been drenched in violence by terrorists and violent repression of human rights by governments, and violence at border crossings becomes a certainty. And it should not be forgotten that Israel has nuclear weapons and would likely not hesitate to use them if its leaders believed it faced an existential threat, as it likely would with such a mass movement of people.
In 2015, during the peak of the Syrian civil war, just over one million climate refugees from the Middle East moved to Europe. The pace of migration has slowed considerably since then, but the pressure of just one million refugees on the EU was considerable. What will happen when up to 800 million people begin to migrate? Like the U.S., Europe will have to close its borders in order to survive. Whether it can do this successfully or not is uncertain.
Route #6 – Migration from the Indian Subcontinent
This route deserves special consideration because it is constrained by several factors. To the south and west it faces the sea. To the north are the Himalayas. To the northeast is China, a powerful foe. This leaves only northwest as a possible migration route. But here too there is an obstacle, but one which is weaker than China – Pakistan.
This route also deserves special attention because it is also the one with the highest risk of nuclear war because both India and Pakistan have nuclear weapons. A brief history will explain the sectarian nature of the mutual animosity that has kept both countries on edge for the past 70 years.
Pakistan (a Muslim state) did not exist until 1947. Prior to that Muslims were a minority in India (20% of the population) where the British Raj protected them from persecution by the Hindu majority. But the independence of India, which had been discussed before WWII, became essential after the war because the British treasury had been decimated by the war and Britain could no longer afford to maintain its far-flung world empire.
Eager to make the deal for independence, Britain hurriedly agreed to the Muslim demand for partition. Amid great bloodshed, Muslims moved to the newly created state of Pakistan and Hindus moved from Pakistan to India. This segregation assured endless enmity. In particular, the two countries have been at odds over the ownership of the Kashmir, with tensions periodically erupting into terrorist attacks followed by military clashes.
There are almost 1.4 billion people living in India. If Indian climate refugees move in massive numbers towards Pakistan, it doesn’t take a great stretch of the imagination to envision one of them pulling the nuclear trigger. This is why this is the most dangerous migration route.
Route #7 – Migration from Southeast Asia
From Myanmar in the northwest to Malaysia in the southeast, there are some 300 million people living in Southeast Asia. The most populous country is Indonesia with 88 million people. The population of Malaysia (8 million) and some of Indonesia will elect to migrate to Australia since it is closer and not an authoritarian dictatorship like China.
Those countries on the Southeast Asian peninsula along with the rest of Indonesia will likely migrate northward, despite the prospect of having to cross the Chinese border. Many may try to move northwest through India and Pakistan to avoid China, and some may opt for Japan.
Crossing any international border under these circumstances is going to be difficult since millions of refugees cannot be accommodated by the potential host country and so their efforts to cross the border, like elsewhere, will be resisted by military force. Climate refugees from the Phillipines will have to cross the ocean to get anywhere and will likely scatter in all directions but with the preponderance going to the Asian mainland because it is closest.
No Holds Barred
Just to repeat a point made in the discussion about route #1, border confrontations will engage both sides in a fight for their lives, so there will be no compromise and no backing down. It will be no holds barred.
Global Economic Impact
The world economy depends on international trade. Political instability and mass migration will likely bring trade between emigrant countries and immigrant countries to a halt, and this will create problems for both sides. The Gross World Product will decline, developing countries will be deprived of aid from other countries and NGO’s, and developed countries will find it harder to access natural resources that do not exist domestically.
I think it is impossible to overestimate the economic damage and personal suffering that will occur as a result of climate migration. We’ve overpopulated the Earth and there is simply no place for the climate refugees to go. This will create unprecedented political and social stresses. Military action will be unavoidable, especially if migration is organized and supported militarily by emigrant countries, and this will raise the frightening specter of a regional or global war – perhaps nuclear – waiting for the right trigger. If a global nuclear war were unleashed on top of the chaos, it would likely be the coup de grace for the human race.
EPILOGUE – The Fermi Paradox
The Fermi paradox, named after Italian-American physicist Enrico Fermi, is the apparent contradiction between the lack of evidence for extraterrestrial civilizations and various high estimates for their probability. The reasoning goes like this:
There are billions of stars in the Milky Way similar to the Sun. With high probability, some of these stars have Earth-like planets. Many of these stars, and hence their planets, are much older than the Sun. If the Earth is typical, some may have developed intelligent life long ago. Some of these civilizations may have developed interstellar travel. Even at the slow pace of currently envisioned interstellar travel, the Milky Way galaxy could be completely traversed in a few million years. Since many of the stars similar to the Sun are billions of years older and therefore could have intelligent life far more advanced than ours, the Earth should have already been visited by extraterrestrial civilizations, or at least their probes, but there is no convincing evidence that this has happened.
There have been many attempts to explain the Fermi paradox. One of them is the hypothesis that intelligent civilizations are short-lived because technological civilizations invariably destroy themselves shortly after developing radio or spaceflight technology. Using extinct civilizations such as Easter Island (Rapa Nui) as models, a study conducted in 2018 posited that climate change induced by “energy intensive” civilizations may prevent sustainability within such civilizations, thus explaining the paradoxical lack of evidence for intelligent extraterrestrial life. Economist Robin Hanson dubbed this “The Great Filter” – something that causes intelligent life to self-destruct. Climate Change could be our Great Filter.