Gaia Vince’s new book should be read not just by every politician, but by every person on the planet, because it lays out, much more clearly than any existing scientific assessment, the world we are creating through global heating.
Nomad Century is the much-anticipated follow-up to Vince’s award-winning book, Adventures in the Anthropocene, which explained how human impacts on Earth have created a new geological epoch. In this new work, the author makes the pessimistic, but entirely plausible, assumption that by the end of this century the Earth will be 4C warmer than during the period before industrialisation. And while this may sound like the stuff of nightmares, she also offers an optimistic vision of how humans might cope after rendering large swathes of the globe uninhabitable – through massive migration towards the poles.
The early chapters outline a dystopian future, based on scientific projections of a world that will soon be warmer than at any time for tens of millions of years. This, she says, is what awaits us if we carry on failing to drastically reduce our emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases: coastlines will be transformed by rising sea levels and stronger tropical storms, forests razed by wildfires, drought-stricken fields will lie barren, and deserts will expand to swallow up villages and towns. Other communities will be wiped out by terrible floods, or abandoned because of a lack of rainfall.
In a growing zone around the equator, temperature and humidity will be so high that people will be unable to prevent themselves from overheating through sweating, making it dangerous to undertake any strenuous activity outdoors. Faced with such an inhospitable environment, Vince argues, humans will do what we have been doing throughout our evolutionary history: we will move. But this time it will be in our billions, on a scale never seen before.
Most of these migrants will try to move north from the tropics, seeking to settle eventually in countries such as Canada and Russia, where the climate will have changed but which will still be inhabitable. This flow of humanity has already started, and will only increase over the coming decades. Some will move because their livelihoods have been destroyed by the changing climate, others will be refugees who have lost their homes to extreme weather events that have become more frequent and intense.
Vince provides a short history of human migration, explaining that it has been key to the success of our species in settling across the globe. Without migration, modern humans would never have ventured beyond their origin in Africa. The author then moves on to a passionate and powerful presentation of the benefits of migration. She highlights the wealth of evidence showing that it enriches both migrants and their destinations and attacks the rhetoric of British politicians and media who seek to demonise asylum seekers who arrive on our shores.
We do now have to contemplate an extraordinary future in which the impacts of climate change make the migration of billions inevitable
She points out that the creation of political boundaries to prevent people from moving unchecked about the globe is a relatively new development in human history. It is, in many ways, an unnatural restriction of our fundamental freedoms. She also illustrates the desperation of many current migrants by describing her visit to the Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh, where hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have sought sanctuary from persecution in Myanmar. She notes that the camp is in effect a poorly planned city in which human potential is being wasted, breeding a sense of hopelessness.
But it does not have to be this way, Vince argues. The coming migration of billions of people from the tropics can be planned, with new cities constructed to accommodate the climate migrants and provide them with the opportunity to build new lives. Already across the world there has been a mass exodus from the countryside to cities, but unplanned urban development had led to a proliferation of slums and shantytowns. However, China has more successfully managed the flow of about 400 million people into its cities over the past three decades through huge construction and infrastructure programmes.
There are plenty of examples in which large populations of migrants have been successfully integrated into their new communities through enlightened policymaking. The Neukölln neighbourhood of Berlin, for instance, welcomed tens of thousands of refugees from Syria’s brutal civil war, creating new jobs and economic opportunities.
Vince makes clear that political hostility to migrants is often based on prejudice rather than fact. Millions of refugees from Ukraine have been accepted by European countries that simultaneously claim they cannot possibly cope with the influx of smaller numbers across the Mediterranean. One way of ensuring a more just treatment of climate migrants, she suggests, is for the United Nations to create a new organisation for global migration, and to offer global citizenship to everybody alongside their national citizenships.
Vince’s deeply humane vision of facilitated mass migration may seem unrealistic against the current backdrop of hysteria about asylum seekers in many parts of Europe and the United States. But we do now have to contemplate an extraordinary future in which the impact of global heating makes the migration of billions inevitable. Unfortunately, the same politicians who are failing to deal properly with migration are the same ones we are depending on to avoid dangerous climate breakdown.
Vince is optimistic about our chances of successfully managing the massive dislocation caused by warming of 4C, and does not dwell on the alternative: a world that does not cope with the displacement of billions of people. The result would be widespread and perpetual conflict across the world, and a tragic new chapter of suffering in human history.
Bob Ward is policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics and Political Science
Nomad Century: How to Survive the Climate Upheaval by Gaia Vince is published by Allen Lane (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply