Thursday, June 4, 2015

This is what climate change will look like


At least 1,725 refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean into Europe have died this year, ACAPS reports today. More than 200,000 had to be rescued last year. Most of them are fleeing the war in Libya, but many of them are migrant workers from further south.

This is what climate change will look like. It will hit hardest in places like Africa, where predictable chronic drought will compound already rampant poverty. It will force tens of millions north, destabilizing countries like Libya and Tunisia with wave after wave of immigrants. And a significant fraction will attempt to cross the Mediterranean into Europe.

We haven't seen migrations of this magnitude in the modern era, but there's plenty of historical precedent. The major lesson is that it completely changes civilization. You can stop mass migrations, but only if you're willing to become a xenophobic fortress society. Sometimes even that doesn't work. The last time we had a really big, famine-driven migration across the Mediterranean, it effectively ended Bronze Age civilization. And if you open your borders, then the war over resources just goes internal.

Perhaps the most frightening aspect of all of this is that we won't recognize it as a symptom of global warming until it's too late. Droughts will look like aberrations; wars and migrations will look overdetermined; and everything will happen at the pace of climate change. That's a pace that isn't measured in the familiar news cycles -- it's measured in decades, centuries, and millennia.