Goran Horvat

Warming may push humanity out of its climate comfort zone

As many as 3.5 billion people could be forced to endure temperatures as high as the hottest areas in the Sahara desert within the next half century, narrowing and shifting humanity’s ‘climate niche’, a new model forecasts.

A new project seeks to research and raise awareness of present and future climate-induced migration and to campaign for policies to slow down climate change and adapt to it. Khaled Diab investigates.

By 2070, up to 3.5 billion people (about 30% of the projected global population at the time) will be exposed to mean annual temperatures of 29°C or higher, according to a new simulation  published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS). Such temperatures are currently only found on 0.8% of the Earth’s land mass, such as the hottest spots of the Sahara, but this will expand to cover almost a fifth of the world’s land surface.

This was the worst-case ‘business as usual’ scenario simulated by a novel model which tracks changes in the surprisingly narrow ‘climate niche’ which humanity has occupied for the past 6,000 years or more (where the average annual temperatures range from 6°C to 28°C). In a future where climate change mitigation keeps temperature rises at 1°C, the areas affected by this extreme heat will be home to about 1 billion people.

Although global average temperatures in the worst-case scenario are estimated to rise by some 3°C, the mean temperature rise experienced by huge swathes of humanity over the next 50 years will amount to an estimated 7.5°C because land will heat up faster than the oceans and because most future population growth will occur in some of the world’s hottest regions.

“Absent climate mitigation or human migration, the temperature experienced by an average human is projected to change more in the coming decades than it has over the past six millennia,” observed the researchers, who were from Washington State University, the University of Exeter, Aarhus University and Wageningen University.

Hostile environments

Such unprecedented temperature rises will make large tracts of the world more hostile to humans and increasingly uninhabitable, including the Fertile Crescent, where agriculture and human civilisation were founded.

This will be for a number of reasons. Agriculture will become far more difficult in the affected regions, with yields falling and some land becoming unfarmable as the heat becomes too intense for common crops and human labour. Droughts and water shortages will become more common. And outdoor temperatures during heatwaves will become increasingly intolerable and deadly as the human body is pushed to its thermal limits.

In addition to mitigation measures to rein in future temperature rises, this raises the importance of boosting the resilience of countries in affected regions and bolstering their capacity to adapt. However, many of these countries are poor and lack the resources to make the necessary investments.

“As the potentially most affected regions are among the poorest in the world, where adaptive capacity is low, enhancing human development in those areas should be a priority alongside climate mitigation,” the authors added.

However, there are limits to how much people can adapt to the projected extremes. People could change the crops they grow or develop more heat-resistant varieties. But what if there is not enough water due to drought? They could import more food but what if yields have fallen globally? They could depend more on air-conditioning but what happens if there is an energy crunch and what about the pollution caused by cooling technologies?

There are limits to adaptation. If you have enough money and energy, you can use air conditioning and fly in food and then you might be OK. But that is not the case for most people,” one of the lead authors of the study, Marten Scheffer of Wageningen University, said in an interview.

This means that millions of additional people will become displaced by global warming in the coming decades, leading to large-scale migration to more temperate climates, including to Europe. But just how many, when and where is impossible to predict, the researchers point out. This will depend on the success of mitigation and adaptation strategies and policies.

“The relationship with migratory phenomena is complex, but it is clear that climate change increases inequalities and the fragility of the most vulnerable people,” explains WeWorld‘s Natalia Lupi, the coordinator of the new EU-backed ‘Climate of Change’ partnership. “There is a need to act urgently to address structural issues with an approach based on respect for human rights and to guarantee the participation of women in decision-making processes.”

Changing the political climate

Climate-induced migration is already a reality, with even Europeans increasingly becoming climate migrants. However, most of the societies hardest hit by the climate emergency are in poorer countries. Moreover, the rapidly worsening situation requires action today to reduce global warming, to boost the resilience of countries and people in the Global South to deal with the consequences and preserve their livelihood, as well as to prepare for possible future surges in migration.

Climate of Change, with 16 partners from 23 European countries, seeks to advance the debate around combating climate change and climate-related migration by empowering young people to foster systemic and political change.

The project, which is funded by the European Union’s Development Education and Awareness Raising (DEAR) programme, will work to raise the awareness of young Europeans about the links between our economic system and consumerist lifestyles and the effect of global warming on poorer countries.

It will also conduct research into the phenomenon of climate-induced migration, focusing on four countries: Cambodia, Ethiopia, Senegal and Guatemala. “We will use the case studies as a basis from which to develop the theory in an inductive way,” explains Pierluigi Musarò, associate professor at the University of Bologna and a partner in the project. “The aim is to build a new theoretical framework on the link between climate change and migration.”

The voice of youth

Climate of Change, in which the EEB is a partner organisation, will also promote the transition towards a more sustainable and humane economic model and a shift towards more sustainable lifestyle patterns.

The project will achieve this by engaging with and enabling young citizens from the EU and the Global South to advocate policies and development actions that tackle climate change as a driver of irregular migration and forced displacement worldwide.

This will be achieved through numerous channels, such as youth gatherings, advocacy work targeted at the holders of the rotating EU presidency, petitions and more.

“Young Europeans have demonstrated their commitment to stopping climate change through mass mobilisation. However, this has not led to sufficient political action,” said the EEB’s Project Officer for Global Policies and Sustainability Eva Izquierdo. “Climate of Change will help amplify the voice of young people in Europe’s corridors of power to remind EU leaders that business as usual is no longer an option.”

As European leaders debate the details of a post-COVID-19 stimulus package, this is a message they would do well to heed and listen to the activists and citizens demanding a green recovery.