Move on up!

Or – how to get a billion people into Canada on the cheap

Obviously you can’t understand the big climate change issues unless you have a grasp of economics (no, really – that’s increasingly where it’s at if you listen to the Very Important People who like to think they run the world). So I’ve been listening to the podcast from Brit money rag The Economist. There was a climate change special (all 8 minutes of it!) following the latest round of international climate negotiations in Doha in December 2012 (I like to call it Doh!-ha based on what these negotiations achieved).

The Economist podcasters discussed how easy it would be to adapt to climate change, and concluded that a lot of impacts could be offset by sensible economic policies, but there might be a problem in adapting to large climate shocks. They talked about how a lot of adaptation might be achieved through migration. Their basic idea was that as the world warmed, people could move north, for example into Canada or the northern parts of the US (there’s nothing like a nuanced discussion of a complex issue, and this wasn’t). Of course, lots of new infrastructure would be needed to accommodate these climate migrants, and there would be an issue of who paid for it, especially in difficult economic times. We could be talking about the building of entire new cities, as well as improved infrastructure in existing cities and towns to accommodate growing numbers of people.

So where will these migrants come from? Presumably from parts of the world that climate change makes much less habitable or productive. A good jumping off point here is to think about water resources – declines in rainfall and greater evaporation due to higher temperatures will put serious pressure on water resources in lots of places. Most of these places are located in the zone of the northern hemisphere that spans the northern tropics and the sub-tropics. The Middle East and North Africa (population 336 million) is in big trouble from a loss of water resources. On the other side of the Mediterranean, Spain (population 47 million) is in dire straits for the same reason (not to mention being an economic basket case). Central Asia (the ‘stans excluding Pakistan, population 90 million) is projected to get hotter and drier. as is Pakistan (population 177 million). In North America, Mexico (population 112 million) is in the same zone, as is much of the southern US. This article states that 60 million people in the southwestern US live in areas prone to droughts that may have brought down earlier civilizations. Way down south, Australia (population 23 million) isn’t in good shape either. And we haven’t mentioned India or China, where some of the population lives in water-scarce areas. Globally, UNEP reckons 1.2 billion people live in areas of physical water scarcity, with 500 million people approaching this situation. Climate change will only increase this number. Although climate change will make some regions wetter, these tend to be at higher latitudes. Most of the people facing water scarcity today live in areas projected to become drier.

Water scarcity is hardly the only problem that might make people move. Sea-level rise will affect the habitability of coastal areas and coastal cities around the world. Here is a run-down of the 20 cities most exposed to sea-level rise, with some numbers of assets and people at risk from a 1.6 foot rise in sea-level by 2070 (data from the OECD). They include Alexandria in Egypt (4.4 million people at risk by 2070), Bangkok in Thailand (5.1 million), Tokyo in Japan (2.5 million), Tianjin in China (3.8 million), Mumbai in India (11.4 million), Shanghai in China (5.5 million), Kolkata in India (14 million), New York-Newark (2.9 million), Guangzou in China (2.7 million), and Miami (4.8 million). I’ve just included the cities for which numbers of people at risk are cited. They’re in order of (increasing) assets at risk, ranging from $560 billion to $3.5 trillion (again, the most important ranking criterion is money, not people, but the article is in Business Insider). That’s 57.1 million people at risk from a rise in sea-level that will be modest in the longer scheme of things, and that’s just a fraction of the total given the many cities with no data, and the other areas not dealt with here.

We don’t know how many people from all the areas listed above (not to mention those that aren’t) will move, or where they’ll go. And forecasting numbers of migrants resulting from climate change is a mug’s game. But there’s a real potential for climate change to render those water scarce areas pretty uninhabitable. The Sahara used to be wet, and look at it now. We might be seeing the emergence of some more ‘ungoverned empty spaces’ as big swathes of land dry up and are emptied of people in the future.

If we run with The Economist podcasters’ idea that people can move north as climate change makes more southerly regions less livable, and more northerly regions more livable (at least in the northern hemisphere), are we talking about enabling everyone living in an area that’s being hammered by climate change to move, or just some of them? If everyone, that could mean transplanting 1-2 billion people from problem areas to those nice improving northern climates. Even if only a fraction are helped, leaving the majority to fester in their shriveling landscapes, that could still mean tens to hundreds of millions.

Is it feasible to move tens to hundreds of millions, or even a round billion or so people from the low latitudes to the northern US, Canada, northern Europe and Russia? Like the economistas said, who pays for the relocation and the infrastructure? It’s likely to be beyond the purse of government, and beyond the pale for existing national populations. Massive infrastructure spending to help immigrants? Hand-outs to climate refugees? You must be joking.

If it comes to it, the answer, as in so many other sectors, will no doubt be engaging the private sector. This could take the form of governments and international organizations paying the private sector it to build new infrastructure to accommodate migration, but see above. The private sector could cream off money from the proposed $100 billion a year Green Climate Fund, intended to fund climate change mitigation (reducing emissions). I’m sure this will happen – corporations profiteering from a fund set up to tackle a problem they’ve had a major hand in causing, but hey.

However, the idea is that a sizable portion of this will come from the private sector. So how might the private sector profit from the relocation of climate migrants while contributing to the likes of the Green Fund?

Here’s a modest proposal. Corporations sponsor new cities. Migrants get to live in them if they build them. No salaries, just subsistence while they’re bonded to whatever corporations are doing the construction with their labour. Such bonding will be a condition of them being let into the destination country. (What do you mean, it sounds like slavery? People are already bonded to corporations, and in poor countries this is often for little benefit other than to pay off the debts they owe to a third party who also employs them to make stuff for the corporation. And mass public construction projects worked for the ancient Egyptians.)

Once a new city has been built, the corporations that built it get paid from taxes levied on the new population. Government doesn’t have to pay for anything, and existing populations don’t have to compete for jobs with new immigrants willing to work for less pay and in worse conditions. Once the cities are there, they’ll help stimulate the regional economy. The up-front investment by the corporations will boost the national economy as they source materials and expertise. Corporations can write in all sorts of conditions, to ensure that they have a captive market and little competition, and can dominate the new communities. Think of the savings on advertising!

We can adapt to climate change, boost the power of the corporations, get government off the hook, reduce the influence of the Federal Government in the new cities, and not have to do anything about emissions. As the new cities will be run by corporations as private fiefdoms we won’t even have to worry about democracy. Happy new Americans and Canadians (other than the Brits, Europeans might not go for this model, and is there such a thing as a happy Russian?) can live in their corporate sponsored utopias, once they’ve put in a few years of free labour. Those empty northern spaces will be dotted with the gleaming futuristic spires of McTropolis and Haliburtonia, and corporations can have a feeding frenzy without even having to get the government to bomb anyone. Having given them immense influence over our lives anyway, this is just the next logical step. And its a great way for the people and corporations who have been knowingly instrumental in causing and accelerating climate change to profit from it. All part of the business model.


Climate Catastrotunity!

Lately I’ve been looking into industries that spend hundreds of millions of Dollars attacking climate science in order to make sure we don’t do anything about it. The usual interpretation of this behaviour is that certain vested interests are trying to protect their profits because action on climate change will cost them more money or even drive them out of business. Carbon taxes and subsidies for renewable energy will make fossil fuels more expensive and renewables more competitive. So will removing the massive subsidies currently granted to fossil fuels. Regulation to improve energy and fuel efficiency will mean people burn less fossil fuel, denting the profits of the Exxons and Chevrons of the world. And of course a lot of people in business and their followers just hate environmentalists. Partly this is because they think progress is about moving further away from nature, and environmentalism is about taking us back closer to nature. So environmentalism is against progress. Progress has given us wealth, disposable leisure time, better health and longer lives and has improved the human condition. So environmentalists that want to take us back to nature must be anti-human. Then there are the religious nut jobs who think they’re some sort of chosen people, and that the great American project of wealth creation based on consumption of natural resources is part of God’s plan. So anyone opposing the business of ripping stuff out of the ground and turning it into money is some sort of satanist working against the Almighty’s grand design. Yes folks, you can pretty much blame Henry Ford, Ayn Rand and Jesus (what a trinity that would be – although maybe we don’t need Jesus now that business can transubstantiate oil into greenbacks).  Oh, and we mustn’t forget Al Gore, who stupidly made climate change a party political issue by being a Democrat and then banging on about how we had to stop global warming.

In a nutshell, that’s the general explanation for why so many industrial lobbyists and political ideologues fight against action on climate change. But I wonder if that’s the whole story. You see, we’re always told that business is about change and innovation, and all I see in the conventional explanation of fossil fuel lobbying is people trying to stop change and suppress innovation, at least outside the narrow horizon of incremental improvements in ways of getting oil out of the ground and putting it into machines. Surely this can’t be! No, I refuse to believe that these hugely successful businesses are anti-change and anti-innovation. After all, that would mean everything we believe about business as dynamic, innovative, risk taking and go getting is wrong. It might even mean Ayn Rand was wrong about the wealth creators, and I won’t hear that sort of heresy!* Surely there’s something wrong here, and I think I know what it is.

Here’s my theory. The people representing the huge corporate interests that lobby against action on global warming fully accept the science of climate change. They see it for what it is – an opportunity. Climate change will transform the world, changing the natural environment in a way that hasn’t happened in all of recorded human history. These changes will create new needs, as people try to adapt. The potential opportunities for business in this new world are huge. Think of all those coastal cities that will need to spend billions on new flood defences. The areas that will need costly desalination, water transport and irrigation infrastructure. The new cities that will have to be built as people migrate away from areas that become uninhabitable. The new crops that will be needed to feed people in areas where existing crops fail. The technology that will be needed to do the job of all those ecosystems that disappear (think bees folks). The weapons that governments will buy to fight each other over dwindling resources.

And not just that, but as the climate fan sprays more and more shit everywhere, there wil be demands to reverse global warming. Governments will pay businesses to carry out massive geoengineering schemes. Injecting particles into the atmosphere to block out sunlight and cool the Earth. Building space mirrors. Filling holes in the desert with water to counteract sea-level rise. Building scrubbers to suck carbon out of the atmosphere. Dropping iron in the ocean so it soaks up more carbon dioxide. Altering the land surface to reflect more sunlight.

It’s going to be a freakin’ feeding frenzy, and big business must know it. It’s the ultimate in disaster capitalism – a coalescing of innumerable climate change opportunities into one massive catastro-tunity**.

So all this ‘we don’t believe in climate change’ shit is just a cover. If people are angry with the deniers now, just imagine how mad they’d be if they knew this was all part of a massive conspiracy to create a big juicy carcass off which big business could scavenge for the rest of the century and beyond. Because that must be what’s happening. The people heading up the world’s richest corporations must be intellectual giants, right? If they weren’t then they wouldn’t have earned their place at the top of the heap through the social Darwinian, Randian struggle on which we all know human society is based.

But I have one small doubt remaining. Obviously this is because I’m not smart enough to understand that climate catastrotunity business model, so I’ll be happy for anyone smarter than me (say, someone running a Fortune 500 company) to set me straight. My doubt is that the scientists –  and even organisations like the World Bank – seem increasingly to be soiling their lab coats about climate change bringing about the end of civilisation or something like that. They keep telling us that we’re looking at a global warming of 7 degrees Fahrenheit (about 4 degrees C), and maybe more, by 2100, and that this is really dangerous for society.

What if this means the collapse of society and – more importantly for business – the collapse of government? Like a lot of people, I hate government, but like the corporations that pretend otherwise, I recognise that government plays a vital role in channelling money to business through all those juicy construction and service contracts and what some uncharitable types call corporate welfare. Now, all of those massive projects that I alluded to earlier are only likely to get off the ground if they’re paid for by governments, so those big corporate interests need to make sure that governments survive and are stable enough to make those investment decisions.

So, to foster the innovation that goes hand-in-hand with creative destruction, we want to make sure that the destruction only goes so far. We need a controlled catastrotunity. Just enough climate change to reshape the world but not so much that global civilization disappears down the can completely. The scientists used to say that we should avoid a warming of more than about 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius), and that anything above that would be ‘dangerous’. But now they’re saying that the maximum allowable warming should be a fair bit less than that. To keep warming below 3.5 F, we need to reduce emissions by huge amounts, really quickly. And we’re not doing that – we’re still spewing the stuff out at an increasing rate. So we’re going to cross that threshold whether we like it or not.

So, from a disaster capitalist perspective, we’re running the risk of driving destruction that isn’t creative but rather, well, destructive. If societies and governments fall, the climate change profiteering model won’t work. No doubt those clever ubermensch like the Koch brothers realize this, and we’ll see all the energy that’s gone into climate denial being redirected into climate change profiteering soon. I hope so, because if not, we might miss that catastrotunity.


*I’ve always respected Rand for her forthright condemnation of Christianity as ‘monstrous‘, for her championing of the individual, and for her criticism of the state and the bland and unimaginative parts of society that can only copy and steal rather than create. But her apparent view that the role of a woman is to be subservient to the strong man has always made me feel a little icky. Lately I’ve been wondering if she isn’t just a low-budget Neitsche, or worse, a beta-version of Anne Coulter (no, that’s too unfair). But I need to read more to work out how I really feel.

**I’ve stolen the term “catastrotunity” from The Bugle Podcast.

Stop climate change or shut up

I don’t know about you, but I’m heartily sick of all this whining about climate change. Whining from those who insist we have to stop global warming but who (mostly) aren’t prepared to put their money where their whingeing mouths are. Whining from the apocalyptic doom mongers who seem to delight in end-of-the-world hyperbole (I guess if you don’t belief in a religious version of the apocalypse this is the next best thing). Whining from those who say it’s the defining challenge of our time and that they’d love to do something about it but they’ve got to put the economy first. Whining about the science and the other whiners listed above from so-called climate skeptics. People in this last category variously insist that climate change isn’t real, that it is real but we aren’t causing it, that we are causing it but it isn’t as bad as people say, or that it is bad but we’ll adapt – whatever is left after their last position has become untenable. Whining, whining, whining.

Here’s the thing. If we wanted to stop global warming we could. But we don’t, or at least we don’t want to badly enough. The people of the world have decided that, even though climate change might mess them up, they’re going to go for it anyway. They’ve decided (you’ve decided) that it’s just not worth giving up all that consumption to save the world as they (you) know it. How many of you have really changed your lifestyles beyond a bit of token recycling and a few low-energy light bulbs? How many of your politicians have stuck to their green promises when someone waggles a chart showing limp economic growth in their stupid faces? How many of you have contacted your representatives to demand action? Not many? Thought so. You see, you’re prepared to risk a bit (or a lot) of climate change. You want it, yes you do. You might say you’re worried about climate change but feel helpless to do anything about it, but that’s self-deluding, lily livered crap of an excuse.

Some of you bleeding hearts might argue that people in the rich world might be too stupid, mean and lazy to do anything about climate change, but it’s the poor in the developing world who’ll pay the price. Give me a break. As soon as the poor get rich (or at least richer), they behave like everyone else. Look at China. All those people who have been lifted out of poverty have gone apeshit for consumerism, and in doing so have helped China become the world’s biggest polluter. The bottom line is that we’re all the same when it comes to trading our personal well-being for a bit of vague future environmental security – most of us won’t do it.

And why should we make that trade? Life’s too short to live in a bubble of risk aversion, and risk makes life exciting. Risk and its consequences also drive innovation – progress, if you like. Look at all the technology that’s come from war. We’re a disruptive, risk-loving species, and that’s what has driven our development. That’s what’s got us where we are today, and who’d want to live in the world as it was before today, except maybe a few smelly hippies?

So, the message of this blog is, stop whining, stop worrying, and stop pretending. Be honest with yourself. If you’re not prepared to ‘do your bit’ as the environmentalists say (and let’s face it, you’re not), then embrace the consequences. Sure there might be a load of chaos and disruption as we adapt to a world changed radically by global warming, but think of the innovation that will drive. We’ve built a world based on the creative destruction of capitalism (I would say disaster capitalism but that might be seen as a tautology). I for one can’t think of a better environment for it to thrive in than one of global climate disruption – plenty of chaos to drive innovation but (probably) not enough to wipe out civilization or the human race. Sure, it’s a gamble, but capitalism is about having the courage to take chances with your (or somebody else’s) assets, right?

And let’s not kid ourselves that we can have a ‘stable’ climate anyway. Even without manmade global warming we’d encounter a climate crisis sooner or later – just look at a few studies of past climate changes and you’ll see what I mean. Some of the changes that the Earth’s climate has gone through before would give global warming a run for its oil money and then some. And if not a climate crisis it will be some other crisis (global pandemic, meteor strike, galactic neighborhood gamma ray burst, super weapons, nanocaust, etc), so who are we kidding.

So, embrace the chaos of climate change – and of change in general – you know you want to. You might even make some money out of it. And if you don’t, someone else will, and you can buy their stuff, as long as you’re still alive and have an income.