Credit: Juan Mabromata/AFP via Getty Images
It was getting hotter. Frank May got off his mat and padded over to look out the window. Umber stucco walls and tiles, the colour of the local clay… [he] took a deep breath. It reminded him of the air in a sauna. This, the coolest part of the day. In his entire life he had spent less than five minutes in saunas, he didn’t like the sensation …
Here there was no escaping it.
The opening chapter of Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future paints a harrowing scene of a near-future heatwave which triggers millions of excess deaths. The protagonist Frank witnesses the extremes that humans will go to for survival: stealing air conditioning units and wading into the town lake to find any way to cool down.
Current national commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions put Earth on track for 2.7°C of warming. Scientists believe this would entail 2 billion people living with average annual temperatures above 29°C as soon as the end of this decade – heat that very few communities are accustomed to.
Frank survives – he is a fit, western aid worker. Others, particularly the young and the old, are not so lucky. The story follows Frank’s guilt at having lived and his subsequent actions, alongside global attempts to manage the fallout of such a disaster. While the novel is dubbed climate-fiction, much of what it describes could well come to pass. In parts of the world, it already has.
The decade spanning 2011 and 2020 was the warmest on record. Current national commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions put Earth on track for 2.7°C of warming. Scientists believe this would entail 2 billion people living with average annual temperatures above 29°C as soon as the end of this decade – heat that very few communities are accustomed to.
This will have multiple repercussions, not least for human health. High temperatures compromise the body’s ability to regulate its own internal temperature, affecting the heart, lungs, brain and kidneys, as well as the mind and the hormonal system, all of which can contribute to premature death and disability. Temperature extremes (both hot and cold) already result in 5 million excess deaths a year. (reference the Lancet)
Temperature extremes (both hot and cold) already result in 5 million excess deaths a year.
There are many ways in which humans adapt to temperature extremes and other climate-related risks – and one valid response is migration. This includes temporarily migrating in the hottest months, longer-term seasonal migration often for employment reasons, and permanent migration. No study has systematically mapped the connections between heat and migration, so my research team and I sought to do just that.
Our findings suggest that heat, in at least some contexts, is and will continue to play a part in peoples’ intention to move, while also threatening their health when on the move and settling. (Reference PLOS Climate )
The heat factor in migration
We read scientific studies, non-governmental organisation reports, government policy documents and other sources about heat and migration. We noticed they fit into two categories. The first looked at how heat drives migration. The second studied the impact of heat on migrants while travelling and when living in a new place.
Of the 32 studies that considered how heat affects migration, half showed that consistently rising temperatures would increase the likelihood that a person will migrate, though this wasn’t the case across the board. People seem to be less likely to migrate because of rising temperatures in low-income countries compared with high or middle-income countries.
Of the 32 studies that considered how heat affects migration, half showed that consistently rising temperatures would increase the likelihood that a person will migrate
Heat pushes people to migrate through a variety of intersecting factors: physiological discomfort, extreme events such as wildfires, poverty and restricted access to water and food, among others. There are also other more subtle factors which influence the likelihood of people choosing, or being able to choose, to migrate. This includes whether they live in the countryside or a city, their gender, how old they are and whether they have access to suitable healthcare and a source of income where they reside.
Heat risks health
Meanwhile, for people on the move, heat and heat stress pose risks at all stages of the journey, as described in papers mostly from the US and Mexico. Many studies concerned people migrating to find work, particularly in agriculture and industry, where the risk of heat appears to be less important than the need for economic survival.
Once in a new destination, the impacts of heat seem to be worse for migrants than non-migrants. This can be because of the type of housing and work migrants are more likely to find themselves in. No studies reported a positive impact of heat on health.
This review paper – as with any academic exercise but particularly when dealing with complex systems – has several limitations, including differences in how heat is measured and how migration is defined. And our findings are somewhat complex, mirroring the complexity of migration and the climate system.
While there is a trend towards people migrating as a result of increasing temperatures, no absolute threshold is defined above which people will definitely migrate, and migration also does not seem to be a guaranteed outcome of heat. The decision and ability to migrate is never straightforward, and is often a last resort when other measures for adapting to the heat have been exhausted.
The decision and ability to migrate is never straightforward, and is often a last resort when other measures for adapting to the heat have been exhausted.
The world’s average temperature may reach 1.5°C above the pre-industrial norm for the first time later this decade. Opportunities to slow the rate at which Earth is heating must be enacted in a timely manner.
Regardless, the regions experiencing temperature extremes are growing, with consequences for human health and the systems that underpin food, employment, political stability and liveability. Now that we know about these risks, climate-related preparations, planning and intervention must focus on vulnerable populations to lessen the impacts of heat on these people.
Climate Crisis Is on Track to Push One-Third of Humanity Out of Its Most Livable Environment
As conditions that best support life shift toward the poles, more than 600 million people are already living outside of a crucial “climate niche,” facing more extreme heat, rising food scarcity and higher death rates.
Climate change is remapping where humans can exist on the planet. As optimum conditions shift away from the equator and toward the poles, more than 600 million people have already been stranded outside of a crucial environmental niche that scientists say best supports life. By late this century, according to a study published last month in the journal Nature Sustainability, 3 to 6 billion people, or between a third and a half of humanity, could be trapped outside of that zone, facing extreme heat, food scarcity and higher death rates, unless emissions are sharply curtailed or mass migration is accommodated.
The research, which adds novel detail about who will be most affected and where, suggests that climate-driven migration could easily eclipse even the largest estimates as enormous segments of the earth’s population seek safe havens. It also makes a moral case for immediate and aggressive policies to prevent such a change from occurring, in part by showing how unequal the distribution of pain will be and how great the improvements could be with even small achievements in slowing the pace of warming.
for every tenth of a degree of additional warming, according to Lenton, 140 million more people will be pushed outside of the niche
“There are clear, profound ethical consequences in the numbers,” Timothy Lenton, one of the study’s lead authors and the director of the Global Systems Institute at the University of Exeter in the U.K., said in an interview. “If we can’t level with that injustice and be honest about it, then we’ll never progress the international action on this issue.”
The notion of a climate niche is based on work the researchers first published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2020, which established that for the past 6,000 years humans have gravitated toward a narrow range of temperatures and precipitation levels that supported agriculture and, later, economic growth. That study warned that warming would make those conditions elusive for growing segments of humankind and found that while just 1% of the earth’s surface is now intolerably hot, nearly 20% could by 2070.
The new study reconsiders population growth and policy options and explores scenarios that dramatically increase earlier estimates, demonstrating that the world’s environment has already changed significantly. It focuses more heavily on temperature than precipitation, finding that most people have thrived in mean annual temperatures of 55 degrees Fahrenheit.
Should the world continue on its present pathway — making gestures toward moderate reductions in emissions but not meaningfully reducing global carbon levels (a scenario close to what the United Nations refers to as SSP2-4.5) — the planet will likely surpass the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting average warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius and instead warm approximately 2.7 degrees. That pathway, which accounts for population growth in hot places, could lead to 2 billion people falling outside of the climate niche within just the next eight years, and 3.7 billion doing so by 2090. But the study’s authors, who have argued in other papers that the most extreme warming scenarios are well within the realm of possibility, warn that the worst cases should also be considered. With 3.6 degrees of warming and a pessimistic climate scenario that includes ongoing fossil fuel use, resistance to international migration and much more rapid population growth (a scenario referred to by the U.N. as SSP3-7), the shifting climate niche could pose what the authors call “an existential risk,” directly affecting half the projected total population, or, in this case, as many as 6.5 billion people.
The data suggests the world is fast approaching a tipping point, after which even small increases in average global temperature will begin to have dramatic effects. The world has already warmed by about 1.2 degree Celsius, pushing 9% of the earth’s population out of the climate niche. At 1.3 degrees, the study estimates that the pace would pick up considerably, and for every tenth of a degree of additional warming, according to Lenton, 140 million more people will be pushed outside of the niche. “There’s a real nonlinearity lurking in there that we hadn’t seen before,” he said.
Slowing global emissions would dramatically reduce the number of people displaced or grappling with conditions outside the niche. If warming were limited to the 1.5 degrees Celsius targeted by the Paris accords, according to a calculation that isolates the effect of warming, half as many people would be left outside of the optimal zone. The population suffering from extreme heat would be reduced fivefold, from 22% to just 5% of the people on the planet.
Climate research often frames the implications of warming in terms of its economic impacts, couching damages in monetary terms that are sometimes used to suggest that small increases in average temperature can be managed. The study disavows this traditional economic framework, which Lenton says is “unethical” because it prioritizes rich people who are alive today, and instead puts the climate crisis in moral terms. The findings show that climate change will pummel poorer parts of the world disproportionately, effectively sentencing the people who live in developing nations and small island states to extreme temperatures, failing crops, conflict, water and food scarcity, and rising mortality. The final option for many people will be migration. The estimated size of the affected populations, whether they’re 2 billion or 6 billion, suggests an era of global upheaval.
According to the study, India will have, by far, the greatest population outside of the climate niche. At current rates of warming, the researchers estimate that more than 600 million Indians will be affected, six times more than if the Paris targets were achieved. In Nigeria, more than 300 million citizens will be exposed, seven times more than if emissions were steeply cut. Indonesia could see 100 million people fall out of a secure and predictable environment, the Philippines and Pakistan 80 million people each, and so on. Brazil, Australia and India would see the greatest area of land become less habitable. But in many smaller countries, all or nearly all the land would become nearly unlivable by traditional measures: Burkina Faso, Mali, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Niger. Although facing far more modest impacts, even the United States will see its South and Southwest fall toward the hottest end of the niche, leading to higher mortality and driving internal migration northward.
Throughout the world, the researchers estimate, the average person who is going to be exposed to unprecedented heat comes from a place that emitted roughly half the per capita emissions as those in wealthy countries. American per capita emissions are more than twice those of Europeans, who still live a prosperous and modern existence, the authors point out, so there is ample room for comfortable change short of substantial sacrifice. “The idea that you need the level of wasteful consumption … that happens on average in the U.S. to be part of a happy, flourishing, rich, democratic society is obviously nonsense,” Lenton said.
Each American today emits nearly enough emissions over their lifetime to push one Indian or Nigerian of the future outside of their climate niche, the study found, showing exactly how much harm Americans’ individual actions can cause (1.2 Americans to 1 future person, to be exact). The lifestyle and policy implications are obvious: Reducing consumption today reduces the number of people elsewhere who will suffer the consequences tomorrow and can prevent much of the instability that would otherwise result. “I can’t — as a citizen of a planet with this level of risk opening up — not also have some kind of human and moral response to the figures,” Lenton said. We’ve all got to deal with that, he added, “in our own way.”
Citation: Issa R, Robin van Daalen K, Faddoul A, Collias L, James R, Chaudhry UAR, et al. (2023) Human migration on a heating planet: A scoping review. PLOS Clim 2(5): e0000214. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pclm.0000214
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