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.


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