With up to three billion people expected to be displaced by the end of the century as a result of global warming, should we reconsider how we think about national borders, asks Gaia Vince?
I’ve had a fascination with maps since I first tried to find my way around Winnie the Pooh’s “Hundred Aker Wood,” looking for “nice for piknicks” and the locations of the characters’ houses. My childhood was spent studying and drawing treasure maps, charting fictitious lands and planning routes to faraway places I wished to visit.
Today, my house is covered in maps that I’ve collected or been given as keepsakes of special places to me. By my desk is a large world map, with continents distinguished from oceans by a colour mosaic. Each coloured patch represents a country, which is separated from its neighbour by a neat line drawn on this two-dimensional representation of our world.
The borders are clearly defined, with ink separating nationalities fated for different outcomes. For me, these lines represent exciting possibilities for exploration and adventure, as well as the opportunity to visit foreign cultures with different foods and languages. Others see them as prison walls that restrict all possibilities.
Borders determine our fate, our life expectancy, our identity, and a variety of other factors. They are, however, an invention, just like the maps I used to draw. Our borders do not exist as immutable features of the landscape; they are not natural features of our planet, and they were created relatively recently.
However, it can be argued that most of these fictitious lines are unfit for the world of the twenty-first century, with its soaring population, dramatic climate change, and scarcity of resources. Indeed, the concept of using borders to keep foreigners out is relatively new. States used to be far more concerned with preventing people from leaving than with preventing them from arriving. They needed the labour and taxes, and emigration is still a problem for many states.
True human borders, on the other hand, are defined not by politics or hereditary sovereigns, but by the physical properties of our planet. Our mammal species’ planetary boundaries are defined by geography and climate. Humans cannot live in large numbers in places like Antarctica or the Sahara Desert. As global temperatures rise, causing climate change, sea level rise, and extreme weather in the coming decades, large parts of the world, including some of the most populous, will become increasingly difficult to inhabit. Climate scientists predict that coastlines, island states, and major cities in the tropics will be among the hardest hit.
Millions, if not billions, of people will be forced to relocate due to their inability to adapt to increasingly extreme conditions.
The world’s most densely populated areas are concentrated around the 25th and 26th north parallels, which have traditionally been the latitudes with the most comfortable climates and fertile land. This narrow strip of land, which cuts through India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, China, the United States, and Mexico, is home to an estimated 279 million people.
However, things are changing here. Climate niches – the range of conditions under which species can normally exist – are moving polewards at a rate of 1.15m (3.8ft) per day on average, though it is much faster in some places. Adapting to climate change will entail chasing our own shifting niche, which has for much of human history been between -11C and 15C (12F and 59F), as it migrates north from the equator. True livability limits are the boundaries we must be concerned about as the world warms over the next century, bringing unbearable heat, drought, floods, fires, storms, and coastal erosion that make agriculture impossible and force people to relocate.
With each passing year, an increasing number of people are forced to flee their homes. In 2021, there were 89.3 million people, more than double the number forcedly displayed a decade ago, and by 2022, that figure had risen to 100 million, with climate disasters displacing far more people than conflicts. This year, floods displaced 33 million people in Pakistan, while drought and the threat of famine have affected millions more in Africa, from the Horn of Africa to the continent’s west coast.
At the COP27 climate change conference, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi urged world leaders to take bold action to address the humanitarian consequences of global warming. According to the UNHRC, the change must be “transformational.” “We cannot abandon millions of displaced people and their hosts to face the consequences of climate change,” Grandi says.
Migrants contribute roughly 10% of global GDP, or $6.7 trillion (£5.9 trillion).
According to some estimates, if nothing is done, hundreds of millions of people will be forced to leave their homes by 2050. According to one 2020 study, “one to three billion people are projected to be left outside the climate conditions that have served humanity well over the past 6,000 years” by 2070, depending on population growth and warming scenarios.
With so many people on the move, will invented political borders, ostensibly imposed for national security, lose their meaning? Climate change and its social consequences dwarf those pertaining to national security. Heatwaves already kill more people than those who die as a direct result of wartime violence.
To make matters worse, the global population is still growing, particularly in some of the most vulnerable areas to climate change and poverty. Africa’s population is expected to nearly triple by 2100, even as growth elsewhere slows. This means that more people will be concentrated in the areas most vulnerable to extreme heat, drought, and catastrophic storms. A greater number of people will require food, water, power, housing, and resources, all of which are becoming increasingly scarce.
Meanwhile, most countries in the Global North are experiencing a demographic crisis, with people not having enough children to support an ageing population. Managed mass migration could thus help with many of the world’s most pressing issues, such as reducing poverty and climate devastation and assisting northern economies in building their workforce.
The main barrier, however, is our border system, which imposes movement restrictions imposed by either one’s own state or the states into which one wishes to travel. International migrants account for slightly more than 3% of the global population today. However, migrants contribute about 10% of global GDP, or $6.7 trillion (£5.9 trillion), which is $3 trillion (£2.6 trillion) more than they would have produced in their home countries. Some economists, such as Michael Clemens of the Center for Global Development in the United States, believe that allowing free movement could double global GDP. Furthermore, we would see an increase in cultural diversity, which studies show improves innovation. It could be exactly what we need at a time when we face unprecedented environmental and social challenges. Removing or making borders much more flexible, particularly with regard to labour flows, has the potential to improve humanity’s resilience to the stresses and shocks of global climate change. Migration, if properly managed, has the potential to benefit everyone.
What if we imagined the planet as a global commonwealth of humanity, with people free to roam wherever they pleased? We’d need a new mechanism to manage global labour mobility far more effectively and efficiently – after all, it’s our most important economic resource. There are already extensive global trade agreements for the movement of other resources and products, but few for labour movement.
60% of the world’s population is under the age of 40, with half (and growing) under the age of 20, and they will make up the majority of the world’s population for the rest of the century. Many of these young, energetic job seekers are likely to be among those who relocate as the climate shifts; will they contribute to economic growth?