Dr Cecilia Tacoli, a researcher at the International Institute of Environment and Development, has published a paper in which she holds that there are misconceptions and alarmism about the effect of climate change on population movements. She thinks that many of us overestimate the likely population migrations because we do not understand how mass migration works, and that in doing so we are being alarmist and that alarmism distracts from “real problems”.
Her starting point seems to be that people faced with climate change problems which change the very nature of where they live will not necessarily migrate. Those that do will make short journeys rather than long journeys and that many migrations will have positive results in that migrants usually support those that they leave behind.
I can understand her point, but do not agree with it. The issue of migration caused by climate change should not alarm us about migration; it should alarm us about climate change. Whether migrations caused by climate change are long or short in terms of distance that migrants will travel, the migrants will need to abandon places in which they cannot live because the land is underwater or there is no water.
The point about drawing attention to this is not to create fears about migration because truly no one really knows how and when and where it will happen. The point is to attempt to galvanise action on climate change, which will happen if we carry on in the same way that we are now behaving.
Displacing half a billion people who now live in Delta lands out of a total world population of seven billion people will inevitably cause distress. Having regard to what we know of mass migrations in the past it is likely to cause more than distress and inconvenience; it may well cause conflict; it may well cause serious food shortages and it will inevitably motivate more people to leave their homes in order to seek a better or safer life elsewhere.
Traditionally people do not like leaving the familiar places and communities into which they were born and brought up. Needs must when the devil drives, and this is the reason why people migrate, rather like my parents migrated, in search of a better safer life.
Migration to the United States of American was driven by people in search of a better safer more prosperous life; many people went simply because they had a chance to earn sufficient for food shelter and clothing after famines in Ireland or pogroms in Eastern Europe or a whole host of similar events.
For the migrants the result was the ability to live and work in a healthy democracy which respected freedom and encouraged enterprise. For the indigenous American people the result was displacement, disease, oppression and often death, as the migrants fought to displace the native Americans.
Climate change will ultimately affect both people in rich parts of the world and people in poor parts of the world. Those are poor and live in poor parts of the world will find it most difficult. They will not be welcomed with open arms by richer countries, and yet, morally speaking, we should welcome them. After all, it is the richer countries that have created the problem which caused the migration in the first place.
One concern that some have expressed is the sheer amount of resources that will have to be allocated to cope with climate change migration. If the wealthy nations welcome climate change migrants then that will create huge additional infrastructure costs. If climate change migrants have to be housed closer to their own homes then there are massive infrastructure costs that will be incurred. There is no cheap solution to climate change migration.
There is a cheaper solution to the problem; this is to invest in preventing the emission of greenhouse gases by whatever means possible or as quickly as possible. In the long term this is not only the cheapest solution but the best solution. Government needs to spend less time assessing the most effective measures and get on with implement all measures. Developing plans that will work best in five ten or fifteen years is no solution; we need to get on with reducing emissions now.