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By Marie-Claire Chappet
ow often do you think about climate change? Not the far-flung devastation of flash floods in Pakistan or the forest fires tearing their way through Australia. How often do you see it directly affecting your life, your job, your home? According to a recent poll of Stack members, 92 per cent of you believe your life will change because of the climate crisis, 64 per cent of you believe it may negatively impact your jobs and 71 per cent would consider moving north as a result of global warming and the climate emergency.
Climate migration is hardly a new topic. We are perhaps becoming immune to devastating statistics or seeing people flee South East Asia, to Europe and North America, to escape the ravages of climate change. But what happens to our perception of the situation when those refugees are not escaping Bangladesh, but the south of France or the Hollywood Hills?
The statistics on ‘first world’ climate migration do not exist yet, but as the consequences are more keenly felt, the threat of climate disaster feels closer to our door than ever. It is no surprise that 100 per cent of Stack members polled said that they had felt the effects of climate change increase in recent years.
“The rich world’s view of climate change is that it is insulated, but that’s backed up by their experience of it,” explains Dr Laurie Parsons, lecturer in Human Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London and author of several books on the human impact of the crisis. “But we see spikes in climate empathy in the first world when we get shock heatwaves like the one we had this summer (2022), or when we see forest fires in countries like France, Spain and Portugal. That’s when the first world starts to pay attention.”
"Your economic situation will be the biggest indicator of how badly hit you may or may not be by climate change and – depressingly, but not unsurprisingly – so is your gender."
What is starting to be measured is first world fear and what we are prepared to do to mitigate putting our own lives at risk. Recent research from the World Economic Forum shows one-in-three people polled across 34 countries, including the UK and the US, believe they will have to move on account of climate change in the next 25 years. A staggering 88 per cent of people polled in Portugal believe that climate change will impact where they live in just ten years. Even the supposed ‘climate proof’ (according to the Swedish Climate Change Protection Agency), polled at 20 per cent and two-thirds of those polled in France and Italy said that climate change has already directly affected them and their livelihoods.
British science writer and journalist Gaia Vince, is one of the voices at the forefront of this discussion. Her latest book, Nomad Century, sets forth the proposition that the globe will have to see mass migration on an unprecedented scale as a new reality – for both developed and developing nations in order to adapt to the realities of climate change. “Be pragmatic,” she recently said, on Channel 4’s Ways to Change the World podcast. “The number of people exposed to coastal flooding globally is expected to rise from 250 million to more than a billion just by 2050. That’s the timespan of most mortgages. So, if you are planning on buying a house. Bear that in mind.”
But, of course, it’s not just about where you live – by the coast in a floodplain or not. It’s money. “With wealth comes the ability to adapt and limit the personal experience of climate change,” says Charlotte Horler, founder of Nula (a platform that educates and engages organisations on sustainability) and the chair of The Stack World Conference roundtable discussion on climate change. “Countries that can afford to build large-scale flood barriers like the Thames Barrier – insulate their citizens from what would otherwise have a catastrophic impact,” she says. Parsons agrees. “Just look at the Netherlands, and Bangladesh, which actually have quite similar geographies. The Netherlands has the money for flood protection infrastructure. Bangladesh does not. That’s why it is ground zero for climate change.”
The intersectionality of climate change and the economy is a crucial, if a rarely dissected part of this global crisis. Your economic situation will be the biggest indicator of how badly hit you may or may not be by climate change and – depressingly, but not unsurprisingly – so is your gender. “There are 1.3 billion people that are living in poverty across the world and 70 per cent are women,” says Horler, who was unsurprised by high climate change awareness among Stack’s female membership. “No wonder it seems like women care more – we are way more likely to be affected.”
"With wealth comes the ability to adapt and limit the personal experience of climate change."
But we also need to be more aware of how fragile our own sense of ‘climate proofing’ is. After all, as the supply chain crisis of Covid, and the gas and grain shortage caused by the war in Ukraine have shown us, we are reliant on other nations for the survival of our own. “We’re so tied into the world that we can’t just flee north and batten down the hatches if everything completely goes wrong outside of our particular island,” Parsons explains. “We may not have as many direct assaults in terms of weather, but it will be a massive problem for us economically as we get the majority of our goods from overseas.”
If people in the first world are really starting to think of climate migration as a reality for them in the near future, perhaps we are opening our eyes to the certainty of the crisis. But it exposes the fact that our own imagined migrations are just a microcosm of a larger, devastating political reality that is already happening: the rich escaping the flood and drawing up the rope behind them. The rise of nationalist populism here and abroad means the first world is already hunkering down and closing its doors to migration even before an imagined mass movement of climate refugees. Let us hope, then, that our wake-up call is a moment to check our own climate privilege. “For the West, climate migration is seen as a future trend,” says Parsons, “But go and talk to someone in the Global South and this is their everyday reality. This is happening to them now.”
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By Marie-Claire Chappet
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