A Different Kind of Climate Change

How climate-induced migration will shape the next century.
Photocredit Thiagomatos

Courtesy Thiago Matos

As children many of us were exposed to the way immigration has shaped the United States through an ABC series titled Schoolhouse Rock. It told a tale of promised opportunity and freedom through The Great American Melting Pot; evenly mixed, consistent and implying that when fully mixed we’d all be equal.

A lovely tale of American history that should have been. But whether you saw schoolhouse rock on Saturday morning TV, or its recitation on social media platforms like YouTube or Reddit, the reality of this revisionist history was much different. In reality, immigration to America happened over an extended period as a slow and intermittent stream of ingress, and has left a complicated and often violent legacy. It’s a story that reveals an underbelly of social injustices that laid the foundation for many of our current day challenges.

The Planetary Relocation Coordinator

While our global history has experienced singular instances of transcontinental migration over time, we have never before been exposed to a synchronous planetary shift. The impacts of a shifting climate have already shown us the beginning of this migration. Our options are fight or flight. Those who choose to fight unite around the hope that our shared mission to solve the climate crisis will prevail, alleviating the stressors such as drought, famine, war, and disease, and catastrophic storms that cause people to relocate. Unfortunately, the evidence of our current actions suggests that this is not the path our society choses.

If climate change is the big bully in the schoolyard, one reaction that is far worse than fight or flight; is the indecision, or freeze reaction, that lies between them. Climate change happens on such a grand scale, that it doesn’t affect our daily choices like needing to bring an umbrella to work after seeing rain in the morning’s weather forecast, which frankly could come in handy when confronted by a schoolyard bully. While an impending storm front may not be the best example, since climate change will bring much stronger storms with greater frequency, our reactions to them will still be reactive. These short-term needs and threats will always take priority over long term corrective actions.

The results of our inaction are coming quickly; the planet may warm by as much as eight degrees Celcius by the turn of the century.  The uneven impacts of our delay are projected to spread outward from the equator causing thirty to fifty percent of the planet’s landmass to be completely uninhabitable. This concentrated area across the earth’s belt region is what climate scientists point to when they talk about a “half-earth” scenario.

The brutality of climate change will be felt much more acutely in the developing nations in this part of the world than it will be in those developed countries whose emissions have brought us to the tipping point of climate disaster.

The ticking time-bomb of this freeze reaction will eventually explode upon developed nations. Our determination to ignore the problem gives climate change the foothold it needs to bring the side effects of long-term impacts right into our own backyards. Warming and its effects will cause the inhabitants of developing nations to initiate a flight response in the hopes of escaping the worst of the impacts. This new age of migration, as entire regions of the world begin an environmental pilgrimage, will bring climate refugees right to the front door of developed nations. Once inside and integrated into communities with indoor plumbing and air conditioning, the near instant lifestyle upgrade of their impact on the planet will put an even greater burden on the environment, worsening the problem exponentially.

Julie Ricard Rtxkkhhgovm Unsplash

Courtesy Julie Ricard

The Great Wall of Inhumanity

But will they be let in, or will we be able to see from space a new great wall of inhumanity that challenges the very horizon? Will we learn from our past injustices, or will we see a resurgence of the historical differentiating factors as future generations migrate in larger numbers? The revisionist history retold by Schoolhouse Rock takes a positive spin on the terrible historical reality of the mass migration of people to the United States.

Migrating racial purists advocated for segregation, fearing the dilution of their future bloodlines, like the watered-down whisky of the times. While these groups were welcomed in, no-one seemed to fuss about objecting to their idea of racial self-quarantine.

The Chinese Exclusion Act, in place from years prior, closed the door to Asian immigrants and treated them no differently than criminals, the mentally ill, anarchists and alcoholics, who were similarly barred from entry.

The mid-1960’s saw the addition of “aliens [openly] afflicted with sexual deviance” to this formal exclusion.

If all of this isn’t enough to turn your stomach, the earlier forced movement of slaves to the new world is absent from our historical accounts of immigration completely as, at the time, these groups weren’t even considered people.

While we’ve made tremendous progress over the last half-century or more towards equity and equality, this evolution of humanity still stands on the edge of a knife. Any single, or combination of challenges can send us toward a future that looks a lot more like our past.

Mike Erskine Gkfsewk Hz0 Unsplash

Courtesy Mike Erskine

Global Inequities Intensified

A global relocation isn’t as simple as packing the kids into a woody and going for a drive. Entire cultures crossing borders must consider how or whether they will be welcomed; how they will impact or disrupt their destination; and the impacts of other social differences.

It’s difficult to think about the United States as a land of equality given recent events. The Washington Post released a series of maps that explain the world, where the US rounds out the top five “most racially tolerant nations” alongside Canada, Brazil, Australia and the United Kingdom. With our current inward focus fueled by a summer of protest over police violence and racial inequity, its hard to consider other parts of the world where racial strife is even more pronounced. Large portions of the Middle East for example are in a group that is, according to the report, “least ok with living next door to someone of a different race”. According to another map in the same article, parts of that same region are also considered “least welcoming to foreigners”. Climate projections suggest that the Middle East in particular will experience summer temperature increases by more than twice the global average, which may lead to drought and a diminishing availability of resources. Add to these struggles a northerly migration of unwelcome foreigners across their borders that may tip the balance enough to spark conflict.

Walk Free, an International Labor Organization along with other groups, estimated that there are still approximately 40 million people enslaved worldwide; with most of that total estimated to be happening in the middle three quarters of Africa. We’ve heard the stories of slaves escaping across borders to freedom, but when joined alongside their captors you can easily imagine how modern-day slavery could begin to proliferate in new regions of the world. Alternately, countries who consider closing their borders in reaction to this can inadvertently create a breeding ground for human trafficking as closed borders make these and other kinds of illegal activities more lucrative and widespread.

Our morals and beliefs will also be challenged as some parts of the world “still criminalize homosexuality” and enforce capital punishment against it, while even basic gender equity remains a challenge in parts of the Middle East. Mass migration across these structures can cause radical change and the laws in each country may quickly become inconsequential. If the beliefs of an adjacent region differ substantially, for the worse, might that incoming population which can be large enough to create a population majority shift, though a mob mentality, take the law into their own hands to upend the status quo?

One thing is clear, if we do not find a way to come together to solve the climate crisis, the impacts of a relocating planet will teach us some very hard lessons about social justice. Luckily for us, Schoolhouse Rock has already shown us how to paint over the atrocities of a future migration history that we prefer to forget.

Anthony Brower, AIA, LEED Fellow, is the director of Gensler’s sustainable design practice, where he champions the craft of high-performance and net-zero energy building solutions. Anthony is based in Los Angeles. Contact him at anthony_brower@gensler.com.


You may also enjoy “A City’s Surface Reflects Its Inequities.

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