Given that I haven’t had a chance to write anything for a few days, I thought I would highlight this Guardian article called Mass migration is no ‘crisis’: it’s the new normal as the climate changes. It’s the kind of article that will get all the usual suspects up in arms with cries of alarmism, and it certainly makes stronger claims that I would be willing to make, or that are fully justified, but I do think it’s an interesting – and relevant – topic.
It does point out that climate change may well have played a role in exaccerbating the factors that contributed to creating this “crisis”, quoting the lead author – Richard Seager – of one study
“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.”
and pointing out that the Pentagon regards climate change as a threat multiplier.
Given that we have indeed warmed and that there have been changes to the hydrological cycle, it’s certainly not implausible that climate change has played a role. However, these kind of attribution studies are extremely difficult and many of the issues are very complex, so it’s also difficult to establish the actual significance of this contribution.
However, despite this, it’s clear that one possible consequence of climate change is an increase in migration of people from regions that are no longer able to support them. I should, however, stress that this depends crucially on what we do in the future. The impact of climate change is likely to depend on our future emission pathway. If we do manage to reduce our emissions, then the likelihood of such an outcome is reduced relative to what would be the case were we to follow a high emission pathway. However, a high emission pathway probably makes such an outcome quite likely. It’s hard to see how continued warming and substantial changes to the hydrological cycle won’t influence the ability of some regions to support the populations who currently live there.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
To be clear, I don’t have any sensible answers to the questions above, or if these really are the questions that we should be asking. There may well be other more important issues to consider, and maybe there are sensible answers to the above. I suspect some feel that we shouldn’t associate this issue with climate change since the attribution is not definitive and, even if there is a link, it’s hard to determine the significance. However, this – in my opinion – ignores that if we do continue to increase atmospheric CO2 concentrations, the resulting changes to our climate could well exaccerbate conditions that could lead to mass migration from regions no longer able to support their populations. Pretending that we can continue to pump CO2 into the atmosphere without this happening, and – hence – ignoring the potential consequences of our emissions, just seems irresponsible.