New World Same Humans #36
The Great Migration is coming. And it raises a dark question about our shared future.
Welcome to New World Same Humans, a weekly newsletter on trends, technology, and society by David Mattin.
If you’re reading this and you haven’t yet subscribed, then join 12,000+ curious souls on a journey to build a better shared future 🚀🔮
🎧 If you’d prefer to listen to this week’s instalment, go here for the audio version of New World Same Humans #36. 🎧
New World Same Humans is on a mission to better understand our shared future: this much you know.
The idea sometimes strikes me, though, that two or three generations from now our descendants will look back with scorn at our attempts to think about what lay ahead. In particular, I wonder if they’ll repudiate us for not paying enough attention to the single, overriding issue that, they’ll come to believe, should have been our only real concern.
I mean global heating. We talk about it a lot, of course. But will those descendants conclude that we spent far too much time fretting about other subjects – AI overlords, driverless cars, culture wars – and not enough about the disaster unfolding in front of our eyes?
In a preemptive attempt to avoid that charge, this week’s essay is about a heated world. Specifically, about the search for justice between nations in that world. I could pretend it’s good news. But you’re far too smart for that. So, instead, I’ll tell you the truth: things may be about to get very dark.
📥 Fast Download: The Great Migration
⚖️ Questions of global climate justice will shape the 21st-century. This week, President Xi Jinping said that China will aim to be carbon neutral by 2060. The promise throws into new relief two huge questions. How do we find our way to a just settlement between nations when it comes to climate change? And how should the Global North respond to the new demands that any such settlement must impose, including the possibility that it will be asked to accept millions of migrants displaced by a warming world?
💰The Global North was built on carbon; the Global South is paying the price. Some context. NASA scientist James Hansen estimates between 1751 and 2006, the Global North was responsible for 77% of all carbon emissions. Today, the average American is responsible for the emission of as much CO2 each year as 51 Mozambicans. Last year, cyclones Idai and Kenneth crashed into Mozambique, killing hundreds and causing $3 billion of economic damages: equivalent to 20% of the country’s GDP. Experts say there will be more such storms in future.
🤦♂️ Rich nations agreed to pay a climate debt and then didn’t pay. At the 2009 climate talks in Copenhagen, rich nations agreed to pay $100 billion by 2020 to help poor nations adapt to climate change. That’s a compromise; charity ActionAid says the cost of adaptation will rise to $1.2 trillion a year by 2060. Meanwhile, we’re now in 2020, and that $100 billion? Rich nations are paying about a third of it.
🌍 The real challenge lies ahead; it’s the Great Migration. The economic part of global climate justice is the easy part. The hard part is coming, and it’s not about transfer of wealth, but transfers of people. It’s estimated that by 2050, 200 million people will have been displaced by global heating. Mainstream climate charities such as Friends of the Earth says these climate migrants must be welcomed into the Global North. But that may mean asking the countries of northern Europe to accept millions or tens of millions of people.
😱 Liberal democracies face a dark dilemma. Now, some analysts are saying the unsayable. That liberal democracies cannot accept migration at this scale and still remain democracies, or even remain nations in any meaningful sense of the word. They say that if hundreds of millions of climate migrants enter the Global North, the resulting economic and political tensions will bolster extreme forms of rightwing populism, and ultimately tear liberal democracies apart.
😱😱 We’re blessed to live in Interesting Times. It takes a while to appreciate the full, dark force of this argument. Perhaps it is wrong. Perhaps liberal democracies can absorb climate migration, and survive in their current form. Look at the current picture, though – at Trump, Brexit and AfD – and that feels hard to believe. We’re left with the frightening conclusion that liberal democracies can respect the demands of climate justice, or respect their own highest collective aspirations. But not both. I don’t know if that conclusion will prove true. But it demands serious attention.
⚖️ Questions of global climate justice will shape the 21st-century
This year has turned out to be a noisy place to live. And that noise can drown out some important signals.
Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke at the annual UN General Assembly this week. He surprised his audience with the announcement that China will aim to be carbon neutral by 2060.
Amid the pandemic and an ever-more fractious US presidential election year, the announcement made only a small splash. So for context: China is the world’s single largest greenhouse gas emitter, responsible for 26% of the global total. The independent analysts Climate Action Tracker say that if China achieves carbon neutrality by 2060, this ‘would lower global warming projections by around 0.2 to 0.3°C, the biggest single reduction ever estimated’.
Of course, there’s a big difference between promising to do something and doing it. But given the stakes, if China meets its new target then Xi’s announcement may come to be seen as the most consequential moment of 2020; more important, even, than the pandemic or the US election.
But I’m fascinated by another aspect of all this. That is, the way Xi’s announcement throws into new relief two huge questions about a heated world.
First, when it comes to climate change how do we find our way to a just settlement between nations, and in particular between the nations of the Global North and those of the Global South? Second, how do the liberal democracies of the Global North respond to the demands that any such settlement would impose? In particular, the possibility that they will be asked to accept millions of new migrants displaced by global heating.
These are two huge questions about our shared future in the 21-century. The answers we find will do much to shape the decades ahead. But look closer, and a troubling fault line runs through the middle of them.
Now, some analysts are drawing the outlines of a dark and frightening idea. That is, that the demands placed on liberal democracies when it comes to global climate justice will prove unbearable. And that if they try to meet those demands, they will implode.
💰 The Global North was built on carbon; the Global South is paying the price
First, some context.
China has long been under pressure to do more on climate change. In the run up to this year’s General Assembly, the EU was pushing President Xi to make a meaningful new commitment or face punitive carbon tariffs in the years ahead. The CCP has grown irritated by these lectures. So Xi’s announcement this week was widely seen as an attempt to wrest control of the narrative from the US and Europe.
This wrangling is a reminder – if one were needed – of the central historical fact about a heated world, which is that responsibility for it is not equally distributed. In the ongoing movie that is climate change, the Global North is the original bad guy.
NASA scientist James Hansen estimates between 1751 and 2006, the Global North was responsible for 77% of all carbon emissions. The legacy of that past is massive global economic and energy inequality. Today the average US citizen uses more than ten times the energy of the average Indian, and three times that of the average citizen in China.
Look to poorer countries and the difference is even more stark. According to Foreign Affairs magazine, the average American is responsible for the emission of as much CO2 each year as 51 Mozambicans, or 581 Burundians.
Today, though, no one can claim that the Global North is the entire problem. China and India are now big polluters. They say that they simply want to elevate their standard of living to that of the average middle class American. And who is the Global North to stop them?
But while the wrangling between rich and becoming-rich nations continues, it’s the poorest countries that will suffer most in a heated world.
Back to Mozambique: in 2019 cyclones Idai and Kenneth crashed into the country, killing hundreds and causing $3 billion of economic damages. That’s equivalent to 20% of the Mozambique’s GDP. Experts say there will be more such storms in future.
🤦♂️ Rich nations agreed to pay a climate debt and then didn’t pay
In the face of this, what does global justice on climate change look like?
Across the last decade the idea of a climate debt has gained traction. This is the idea that the world’s richest countries should transfer wealth to the poorest to pay for the damages done by climate change, and to fund adaptation to clean energy in the developing world.
At the Copenhagen climate talks in 2009, rich countries agreed to give $100 billion a year by 2020. Back then, some said it wasn’t enough. Charity ActionAid say the annual cost of repairing damages caused by climate change will rise to $1.2 trillion by 2060
Climate debt proponents say this isn’t only about justice; there’s a practical imperative, too. Without a massive transfer of wealth, poorer countries will struggle to adopt clean forms of energy. And that means global heating will be even worse.
Meanwhile, we’re now in 2020. The $100 billion a year promised by rich nations at Copenhagen? They’re paying about one third of it.
🌍 The real challenge lies ahead; it’s the Great Migration
It’s a fractious picture. There’s broad agreement that global climate justice demands some transfer of wealth. There’s little agreement on how much. And then there’s getting rich nations to pay the little they’ve agreed on.
The trouble is, though, the economic part of global climate justice is the easy part. There’s an even more difficult problem looming, and it isn’t about the transfer of wealth. It’s about transfers of people.
Let’s be real: we’re highly likely to see warming beyond the 1.5C-2.0C threshold agreed in Paris. That will make parts of Earth difficult or impossible to inhabit. And then people will start to move.
And if you thought the economic numbers were dizzying, then reckon with the migration numbers. The most widely shared estimate says climate change will force 200 million people to migrate into the Global North by 2050. The International Organization for Migration says the figure may reach 1.5 billion.
The estimates vary wildly, and they’re all contested. But there’s general acceptance that modest temperature rises will see hundreds of millions of people on the move. This will constitute the biggest migration of humans ever. There’s really no comparable event in history.
What’s more, the reality of these migrations won’t hinge on global climate accords, diplomatic wrangling, and the usual will we or won’t we improv games by the Global North. These people aren’t going to ask for permission. They’re just going to come.
So what to do?
Justice demands that the Global North accept these migrants. And that is the avowed position of mainstream climate groups such as Friends of the Earth, who say they should be welcomed.
Even those groups, though, seem reluctant to countenance the practicalities of what they suggest. If the rich countries of the world accept ‘their fair share’ of climate migrants, that may mean tens of millions each.
😱 Liberal democracies face a dark dilemma
Some analysts think that the rich world can still head off the risk of massive climate migration, by taking determined action now to limit temperature rises. That should include paying the $300 billion a year and more that poor countries need to adapt.
Others think that it’s simply too late to avoid 2C of warming and the migrations that will follow. But they argue that liberal democracies can absorb the influx of people.
Others still, though, point to a third and chilling possibility. They too believe that massive climate migrations are now inevitable. And they concede that fairness demands liberal democracies accept climate migrants. But they argue that if those democracies are to survive, they must not accept them. To do so, says this argument, would be to welcome the destruction of their democracies, and most likely their end as nations in any meaningful sense of that word.
This is the argument put forward in the starkest of terms in a 2020 book called Climate Change and the Nation State by Georgetown University’s Professor Anatol Lieven. Lieven says that if liberal democracies admit millions of new migrants, the resulting economic and political tensions will tear them apart. Social cohesion will break down, and ultra-right populists will prosper. The most likely result, says Lieven, is fascism.
So Lieven says that in future, rich nations will face a choice. One between doing the right thing by millions of displaced people, or survival as liberal democracies. Given the alternative, he recommends they choose the latter.
😱😱 We’re blessed to live in Interesting Times
It takes a while to appreciate the full, dark force of this argument.
Perhaps Lieven is wrong. Perhaps rich countries can absorb millions of climate migrants and survive in their current form. But look to the fractiousness around migration that’s already rippling through US and European democracies – look to Trump, Brexit, and AfD – and that’s hard to believe. In other words: take the current state of liberal democracy, then throw in some 200 million climate refugees and stir. How does it look?
We’re left, then, with a tragic conclusion. That carbon-fuelled industrialisation has constructed around us a moral labyrinth from which there is now no escape. One in which affluent liberal democracies can respect the demands of climate justice, or respect their own highest collective aspirations. But not both.
That is a frightening thought. I don’t claim to know if it’s true. No one can know how events will play out. But from where I stand it seems, at least, a credible proposition. And one we need to think more about.
What is more clear, though, is that questions around global climate justice – around transfers of wealth and people – will profoundly shape the decades that lie ahead. And if, as seems likely, hundreds of millions of people in the poorest parts of the Earth are forced to leave their homes and head northwards, then you and I will be blessed to live through Interesting Times.
We still have a choice
Thanks for reading this week.
This week’s essay dealt with some difficult issues. But I still believe we all – that is, those of us affluent enough to read and write email newsletters – have a responsibility to face the challenges ahead with honesty and determination.
At New World Same Humans we’re building a community dedicated, in our own small way, to doing just that. Now, our community has grown to 12,000+ curious souls who believe we must all work together to build a better shared future.
There’s one thing you can do to help make this community more useful. That is, invite more people inside!
So if you found today’s instalment engaging, why not take a second to forward this email to one person – a friend, family member or colleague – who shares our fascination with the future of truth and democracy? Or share New World Same Humans across one of your social networks, and let people know why you find this newsletter valuable. Just hit the share button!
Your membership of our community is valued. I’ll be back on Wednesday; until then, be well.
Hello Dave - You have neatly summarised some of my ominous morning thoughts. To me the idea that people will collectivly take action that results in short term personal loss for long term collective gain is balderdash. I really can see us going down the walls and AI guard towers route.