A report released yesterday by the World Bank revealed that over 216 million people throughout the world will be forced to move by 2050 because of the climate crisis.
Estimated number of people who will need to be on the move by 2050, thanks to global heating and the climate crisis. Photo: From "Groundswell Part 2 : Acting on Internal Climate Migration", published by the World Bank
The just-published study, Groundswell Part 2: Acting on Internal Climate Migration, describes a global civilization of at least hundreds of millions of people who will have no choice than to move vast distances just to survive. The actual number may be much higher because the negative impacts of the climate crisis are accelerating and so far humans have proven unwilling or unable to cope with the consequences of planetary destruction.
“Groundswell Part 2” builds on a 2018 World Bank study which looked at the same situation for the regions of Latin America, South Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa, a region which comprises 55% of the developing world’s population The new one extends its scope to cover East Asia and the Pacific, North Africa, Eastern Europe and Central Asia. The 216 million people it projects to be moving because of one or more climate events is an aggregate total of all six regions covered in the two reports.
The original study reviewed how the impacts of water scarcity, heat stress, sea level rise and increased damage from storm surges, extreme weather, loss of usable land mass, and the related implications of lower crop productivity will force 86 million people in Sub-Saharan African, 40 million in South Asia, and 17 million in Latin America to move just to live. The Sub-Saharan African region is geographically defined by the name, and covers the majority of that continent’s land mass. Latin America includes everything in the Americas from Mexico southwards. South Asia covers India and neighboring countries.
As that earlier report noted, the responses to the climate changes will vary by region, with some areas, such as Dar es Salaam, the capital of Tanzania, and Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital, seeing dramatically curtailed growth rates as climate migrants flee the onset of sea level rise and decreased crop yields. High heat will also force millions out of Addis Ababa, the largest city in Ethiopia. This is “out-migration” in action.
Other regions, such as the southern highlands area between Bangalore and Chennai in India, will provide an oasis of sorts as the coastal regions see sea levels rise quickly outside of the region and aquifers collapse in the surrounds because of higher heat. Saltwater intrusion into existing aquifers will greatly throttle the availability of fresh water in multiple regions in South Asia. It is estimated some 20 million people in coastal Bangladesh will have to flee as ocean water takes over. Agricultural productivity will suffer greatly, and land areas inland will be tax available resources for sanitation, housing, medical care, and even jobs. This is what is meant as “in-migration”, the other sort of climate migration.
In the new study, the World Bank authors predict East Asia and the Pacific will see some 49 million people forced to move because of climate transformation of their homelands by 2050. North Africa will see 19 million people forced to relocate, and 5 million people located in Eastern Europe and Central Asia will also need to find new homes.
These people will begin their migrations as early as ten years from now.
When the moves happen, the report points out more gently than it probably should that the migrations will bring with them highly disruptive societal changes. There will be new wars fought over availability of fresh water or the best locations for arable crops. As once-forbidden regions, such as the northernmost parts of the planet, which used to be too frozen for too often to live within become the new best places to live, there will be fights over them. Governments which happen to be in the right place at the right time, such as Russia, are already seizing the opportunity to dominate the Arctic passage and northern Siberian coast. In China, the vast wealth and geopolitical power of the country may be used to seize control of water sources north of the Mekong Delta, take control of desirable lands along its southern borders all the way to India, and build new islands if that is what is needed to survive.
The existing report does not appear to account fully for the disruption of once-stable rain patterns across the equatorial regions of the world. It is one of the more recently projected climate-crisis changes and will almost certainly force far more people to move faster than the current reports predict. The report also assumes a continuous transformation of the planet due to global heating, rather than the far more likely scenario of everything from sea level rise to temperature rises and extreme weather events increasing in a series of major surges. These surges are tied to catastrophic glacial melting events and the multiplicative impacts of increased wildfires, permafrost methane releases, and likely sudden shutdown of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) currents sometime during this period.
Even without those considerations, the coming climate migrations will unfortunately come mostly without much forward planning or investments to prepare for the upcoming changes. As will be seen soon when COP 26 happens in November, the leadership of most countries will cling to beliefs that something like large scale carbon capture will become possible, suck much of the carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and stall the forces of climate change.
Even if all that were feasible and what scientists have recently learned about carbon capture, that far more must be removed than was put in to have any significant slowing effects on global heating was wrong, the secondary effects of wildfires, ocean heat, and vast permafrost methane release as it melts will keep the climate crisis chugging towards its ultimate destination.
As the World Bank Report makes clear, the time to plan for the climate migrations to come is now. Not ten years from now and certainly not almost three decades from now when the 2050 scenarios described in “Groundswell Part 2” become a reality. The leadership on the planet must also realize it has no choice but to spend the planning effort and the money now to save as many of their people as they can.
If not, they will find out that building lifeboats after the ship has sunk is a bit too late.