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The author is the author of ‘Move: How Mass Migration Will Reform the World – and What It Means to You’
Climate change is nearing the point of no return. As the most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, even if carbon emissions were to stop tomorrow, those that have accumulated in the atmosphere are enough to upset many of the planet’s ecosystems for decades to come.
Therefore, the forthcoming COP26 summit, while necessary to promote the mitigation of climate change, is completely inadequate to address the equally important agenda facing humanity: adaptation.
As heat, rising seas and drought make parts of the planet uninhabitable, millions, if not billions of people will eventually have to move terrain at the latitudes best suited for survival. The most difficult challenge before us is not to reduce emissions, but to relocate people. Neither the IPCC nor any other agency is currently competent to address this fundamental question of human geography.
In the post-war decades, relatively predictable migration patterns occurred, within and across regions. The largest number of migrants moving within an area, for example, is the 23 million who moved across the borders of the former Soviet republics.
But in the coming decades, the world will face several looming demographic imbalances. Labor shortages in North America, Europe and North Asia are getting sharper, and these regions will have to open the immigration taps accordingly.
Tens of thousands more Asians may be forced to move permanently to Eurasia as parts of Asia become uninhabitable and the livelihood dries up. A large number of South Asians and Chinese will drift north to the vast steppe lands of southern Russia and Kazakhstan, regions abundant in fertile soil and almost completely deprived of people.
Some of these would probably have been even without climate change – but it is almost certain. This century we are expected to reach ‘the highest humanity’, our maximum species population of almost 11 billion. From that point on, survival becomes a game of distribution. How will we choose to organize ourselves over the entire 150m square kilometer territory? Is today’s map suitable for the purpose, given how many people have to move across different borders at different times – and move again?
As for migration, national governments have sovereign writings. But meeting the challenge of human geography requires more than talking about bilateral migration agreements.
We need to bridge the gap between the hyper-sensitive and short-term political discourse on migration and the collective strategy needed to house humanity. Talking about human geography rather than migration can be a powerful rhetorical tool, as it emphasizes that we are all in the same boat and gently shifting the focus from narrow national sovereignty to vast planetary stewardship.
In a world with a changing climate, we need a new division of labor between the continents. South America and Africa will become more and more regions of emigrants. North America and Eurasia need to absorb more people, while they are being recycled from the southern American areas in the south and South Asia to more fertile inland areas. There will be climate pioneers terraforming difficult new sites in places like Canada and Russia for millions of future migrants.
Our political cartography will also evolve. Sinking islands in the South Pacific will have to be abandoned for Australia and New Zealand, which will in fact become their protectorates in a collective Ocean rather than meaningful sovereigns. Today’s fiscally tense and undeveloped Visegrad countries could merge into a larger federation to better manage their vital forests, agriculture and rivers to prepare for demographic replenishment by Arabs and Asians.
As a reversal of current centrifugal trends, the British Isles would not only deepen their resource expansion, but also represent key hubs in a revived version of the medieval Hanseatic city, connecting Churchill in Canada with Aberdeen, Scotland and Kirkenes, Norway.
Many scholars ask: what lies beyond sovereignty? If we are wise, the answer is ‘programmable geography’ – the recoding of places based on their changing roles in our fluid global system. Liveable geography is our most precious earthly resource, and we must optimize it for those who come after us. We owe it to the future to adapt sovereignty to a new reality.