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  • Writer's pictureParag Khanna

Climate-driven migration is becoming inevitable as the focus shifts to nations’ geographic fate

Climate Alpha CEO, Parag Khanna, is featured in Fortune Magazine as a contributor to this month's Commentary where he shares insights on pressing issues facing the environment and business world.

Global carbon emissions have crossed 58 gigatons per year and continue to rise. The accumulated greenhouse gasses in our atmosphere effectively guarantee that the Earth’s average temperature rise will cross two degrees Celsius. In fact, it briefly just did in November.

That we are failing at climate mitigation in the aggregate does not mean that efforts should be abandoned. On the contrary, the falling cost of solar energy, the growing embrace of nuclear power, innovations in alternative protein, and innumerable other breakthroughs are monumental testaments to human ingenuity. Bold geoengineering projects may yet buy us more time to invest in ecosystem repair. But right now, these efforts are still too little even if they are not too late. 

We must reckon with the fact that halting climate change alone doesn’t mean the automatic restoration of the familiar ecosystem of the pre-industrial world. Complex systems never snap back to some convenient natural state. Many planetary boundaries of ecosystem stress–from ocean acidification to deforestation–have already been crossed. Areas of Central America, sub-Saharan Africa, and South Asia face irrevocable drought and critical levels of freshwater scarcity, while excessive nitrogen-based fertilizers contaminate soils and toxify the phosphorus cycle.

Adaptation has been neglected because, unlike mitigation, it is not perceived as a global public good with a regulatory focal point. Mitigating global warming will benefit the poorest nations most given their disproportionate exposure to the impact of climate volatility on sectors crucial to their economy such as agriculture. By contrast, adaptation–whether it’s the restoration of coastal mangroves, planting drought-resistant seeds, or building sea walls–is considered a private good with mostly local benefits. 

That’s why adaptation must garner as much investment as has been devoted to mitigation–and far more rapidly. Lately, the COP deliberations have embraced the language of adaptation, but actual commitments to the “Loss and Damage” fund for developing nations have been paltry, with little thinking or action devoted to genuine systems resilience. However, we should invest even more in geographies relatively less harmed by climate change in order to boost their capacity to be productive food and energy providers for regions no longer able to provide for themselves.

Climate migration

Fertile geographies are inevitably becoming the destinations for mass climate migrations, as I documented in the book MOVE. Meeting the Paris Agreement emissions targets won’t stop the glacier melt in the Andes or bring rain to the Sahel. Countries such as Bolivia or Yemen may well become “vacant states” as their populations dwindle due to emigration. The consequences for human geography are visible at the U.S.-Mexico border, in Turkey, and tragically on the Mediterranean Sea floor. Nations hosting permanent new climate refugee populations need fiscal support and even political incentives to effectively absorb them.

While adaptation support to vulnerable nations provides humanitarian benefits and new ecologically sustainable models, the accelerating pace of outward migration from climate-stressed areas also suggests some such investments will not address migratory flows. Solar panels for an Eritrean village won’t keep its boys from fleeing the country’s hopeless economy and austere politics. 

Masterplanners are busily designing the densely populated and walkable cities of the future brimming with electrified public transport and “circular” features such as rainwater collection and wastewater recycling, renewable energy-powered microgrids, and hydroponic food production. Let’s face it: There will be far more of these in North America and Eurasia than South America and Africa.  

There is so much more that companies can do to positively shape the reality of migration as the most prominent and irreversible form of adaptation. In fact, most destination countries across North America and Europe need to enlarge their populations given ultra-low fertility rates. They need to replenish their workforce to cope with acute shortages of farmers, doctors, software engineers, construction workers, caregivers, and dozens of other professions. Migrants will play crucial roles in the retrofitting of host nations to cope with the climate volatility that has ravaged their own–helping to future-proof their economies in the process.

Tangible adaptation

For these reasons, adaptation must shift from reactive to proactive. Indeed, resilience to climate risk must become a metric of sovereign risk. Current approaches to ratings bias towards mitigation, scoring countries higher for their net-zero commitments, even if these are mere lip service. This is, of course, lazy and misleading. Net-zero targets are in no way reflective of a country’s geographical fate amidst climate volatility. 

Many of today’s “developed markets” such as Spain or Italy are failing to invest in climate adaptation even as they suffer from wildfires and droughts–vulnerabilities that only compound their erratic populist politics and declining populations. Why should they be privileged by long-term investors over “emerging markets” such as Kazakhstan that boast growing populations, diversifying economies, significant expansion of food and energy production, and rising connectivity to global markets? In a climate-stressed world, our taxonomies must reflect tangible investments in physical adaptation such as flood protection, water desalination, reliable energy grids, and other measures, not just a box-ticking exercise. 

Complex systems can be managed, but equilibrium is elusive. Yet, we must try. Active adaptation is neither a capitulation nor a moral hazard–it’s accepting reality and sensibly hedging our bets for collective survival. 

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