As climate change becomes more and more of a reality, people are naturally thinking more about how it is going to impact them directly.
Stronger hurricanes, melting ice sheets, and crippling heat waves quickly become the norm around the world, and people are starting to look for where they might have the best chance to weather the worst effects of climate change.
The bad news is that no place on Earth will be unaffected by climate change. Our climate is all-encompassing, so everything will undergo some kind of transformation in response to changes in the climate; the only question is how these changes will affect the life forms that live there.
Some places will certainly fare better than others, while others will become entirely uninhabitable fairly quickly. By 2100, it will be a different planet, and these are the ways we are likely to try to adapt.
Places likely to see major population exoduses due to climate change
What most people are most concerned about is what are the places that will be most negatively affected. In many cases, people simply want to know if they need to start packing their bags and get out while they can still sell the house they bought along the coast, even if they take a loss on the sale. They aren't alone.
One of the most critical dangers of climate change is that as the sea levels rise and heat scorches arable land and turns them into deserts, while it evaporates reservoirs of drinking water in many parts of the world. All of the preparation we're making to somehow allow our city to ride out the climate crisis is doomed to failure. You can hold back the rising seas for a very long time, right up until the day that you no longer can.
Earth's climate can just keep getting worse for us; it doesn't have to reach some upper limit on how bad it will get. The 2 degrees Celsius limit that is the general target for limiting warming is entirely arbitrary. There's no reason why we can't go to 4 degrees, or 8 degrees, or higher.
The climate projections at 4 degrees of warming and the effects on us are basically apocalyptic, but it can and does just keep getting worse the warmer it gets beyond that. And our emissions have increased in recent years, not the other way around. Building barriers to survive a 2 degree warmer world means nothing if we go to 4 degrees, and building to 4 degrees of warming is useless in a 5 or 6 degrees warmer world.
We humans, on the other hand, have limited resources to fight back. We can reach a limit on what we can spend to defend our cities from greater and greater sea-level rise. Those resources won't be nearly enough to prevent some places from having to be abandoned entirely in the most likely scenarios. In the end, people will ultimately migrate or flee rather than try to live in the worst affected areas, and these areas are home to some of the most populated parts of our planet.
As a general rule, the equatorial latitudes that are livable now will become increasingly less so. There will be pockets of livable space that remain or will develop in the equatorial band, such as in mountainous areas with lower temperatures or in places where local geography makes the climate livable. These areas will be increasingly isolated from everyone else as more of the world's population migrates away from the equator, though, so even if you could stay there, you might not want to.
The biggest problem about rising seas isn’t that somehow it's a special kind of water that is particularly dangerous. It’s that the cost to fortify our coastal cities against sea-level rise is much too expensive for even the wealthiest nations, and most coastal cities are built with at least some major portion of them below the sea-level projections for 2100.
To save those parts or even the entire city, barriers and walls will need to be built to hold back the sea, and these aren't cheap. If resources becoming more scarce in the future, as is likely, then those resources will have to be used to build up areas that are going to remain habitable. This is to accommodate the influx of climate migrants flocking to these new centers of relative stability.
What is true for coastlines is especially true for many islands around the world. Not only will the sea level rise shrink the total area of the island significantly, if not swallowing it entirely, but islands in the South Pacific and the Caribbean are also in major hurricane zones.
As life on these islands becomes more challenging from the rising sea level, hurricanes will be stronger than they’ve ever been in human history, damaging whatever parts of the island haven’t been lost to the seas already.
One of the remarkable things about human engineering recently is the ability to bring water to the deserts of the world and make them habitable. In the American Southwest, for example, Hoover Dam has been able to provide water for drinking and crop irrigation for several US states like Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, and California.
Due to the droughts that are expected to increase in number, duration, and severity in these areas, those water systems will not be able to sustain the populations living there, as the temperature in some places with make it lethal to stay outside for any length of time - for months out of the year. Las Vegas might be fun for a getaway, but no one will be able to afford to keep water flowing to these areas which have exceptionally high water needs.
Rainforests, woodlands, and other 'Tinderbox' biomes
Wildfires in California have grown in intensity in the last two decades, due to a prolonged period of drought and rising temperature that dries out the grass and woodlands in the state. One spark is enough to cause massive conflagrations that are enormously expensive and increasingly difficult to fight.
What’s happening in California could easily become the norm in places like the Pacific Northwest or Brazil as the rainforests there are disrupted by droughts, soil disruptions, or other climate changes effects that cause the forests to begin to dry out and die.
Even in Russia, wildfires in Siberia, which normally don't threaten urban centers, have burned down 21 million acres of forest and are moving dangerously close to major cities where the smoke is becoming a major health hazard for residents. Such fires will only increase in frequency and intensity as hotter, and longer summers dry out more forests and woodlands, creating the perfect condition for a conflagration.
Places likely to see huge population influx due to climate change
If you are fleeing climate change, you’re going to be looking for someplace better than what you left. Some areas of the planet will remain habitable, and some previously inhospitable parts of the Earth might even be able to support large populations for the first time in human history.
That doesn’t mean that everything will balance, however, and some of those newly habitable regions might quickly become the deadliest places on Earth.
As a general rule, populations en masse are going to shift more toward the northern latitudes. The temperature in these regions will rise—and will probably rise faster than at the equator—but the absolute temperature will still be much higher in the equatorial latitudes, which are expected to see a significant increase in deaths coming from excess heat.
Considering that the northern latitudes are already home to wealthier nations who have struggled with a migrant crisis that is far smaller than the great climate migration we will see over the next 75 years, this is likely to present the most immediate political challenge that will arise from the impact of climate change.
This pretty much goes without saying that the interior of a country is likely to see a major influx of coastal migrants for the remainder of the century. Further away from the coasts, the effects of hurricanes and rising sea levels get less severe the further inland you move. But, since interiors have often been less developed than the relatively richer, more populated port cities along the coasts, the infrastructure further inland is likely to be much less developed for the populations that they will need to sustain.
Facilitating this population migration inland will require major investments on the part of national governments, who will be all that more inclined to abandon coastal cities as a result. The money will follow the people, inevitably, and since it won't be hard to sell the idea that the coasts are likely to be lost anyway, the infrastructure necessary to shore up the coasts likely won't get built, making the loss of coastal communities a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Mountain regions at high altitudes
When the sea levels rise, humans will seek higher ground, and you don’t get much higher than mountains. Low lying mountains with very high treelines are not likely to be a refuge, though, since these regions may not be susceptible to flooding, but they will be susceptible to fire.
As California is proving more and more every year, it is increasingly impossible to live in a region with a high likelihood of wildfires, and the cost of building up property in areas that runs the risk of being destroyed in an annual fire season isn’t the kind of place we’re likely to spend limited resources.
High altitude mountain regions like the Rocky Mountains in North America or the Alps in Europe are going to see more people permanently move into those areas. Water resources will be a challenge though, as much of the drinking water that these regions will need comes from snowmelt and glacier run-off, which will be increasingly unable to replenish reservoirs every year.
Inland Lake Regions
When glaciers and ice sheets melt away, a lot of water sources around the world, mainly rivers, will dry up to varying degrees and threaten the drinking water that billions of people depend on. Those lakes not fed by glacier melt will then become a major if not the only source of fresh drinking water in the region.
Places like the Great Lakes Region in the US and Canada are likely to see the largest influx of climate migration since the one certainty in all this is that people, and all life for that matter, will move to where the water is.
The wild card: Newly thawed land in the Arctic and Antarctica
This is a tricky one since it's both somewhere we are likely to move into, and it’s somewhere that we ought to stay away from at all costs.
As much as people have rightly laughed at or expressed outrage about US President Donald Trump’s recent floating of the idea of the US buying Greenland from Denmark - Greenland maintains its autonomous from Denmark, who 'owns' it officially and provides for its foreign policy and defense - there's a reason why Greenland holds a special place in the climate change discussion.
While it is home to the largest ice sheet on Earth, whose complete melting is going to be the single greatest trigger for runaway climate change on the planet, Greenland is also going to be one of those stretches of land where the disappearance of polar ice, glaciers, or ice sheets will create newly habitable areas for humans to live - at least in theory. And as lands in other parts of the world grow uninhabitable, the pressure to move into newly habitable lands will be enormous.
There’s also evidence that buried beneath all that ice are a massive stock of untouched natural resources like oil, gold, and rare earth minerals, something that will likely be a point of contention between nations whose borders extend into the arctic from here on out. Russia and the United States have already started positioning themselves for control of the melted Arctics resources, much to the horror of countries like Iceland, Norway, and at least some parts of Canada.
Besides fighting and killing over rare-earth mineral deposits in the Arctic circle while the world is violently reconfigured by climate change, there are much more important reasons why we shouldn’t go anywhere near this newly un-iced land in places like Greenland or the thawing tundras of Canada, Alaska, and Siberia.
EO On This Day: Nearly Ice-Free Northwest Passage https://t.co/Qx1ZptvBGQ In August 2016, the famed high-latitude sea route in the Arctic Ocean was open. https://t.co/Qx1ZptvBGQ #NASAEO20 #EarthDayEveryDay pic.twitter.com/PeaMt3hk6e— NASA Earth (@NASAEarth) August 20, 2019
Much of this ice predates or just overlaps the emergence of humans on this planet, and bacteria, viruses, and other organisms predate that ice, locked away in the ground below. While the ice sheet and permafrost were there, they posed no threat to human life because we simply never encountered it.
After the thaw though, scientists are very concerned about those pathogens coming into contact with humans. What happens when human beings encounter diseases that we have no prior exposure to? You guessed it, plagues - the kinds that humans haven’t had to deal with since the advent of modern medicine but are the kind of thing that has thoroughly traumatized human civilization since we first started settling in cities.
While those diseases have never seen modern medicine either, so will probably be killed by the most ineffective antibiotic we have, that won’t remain the case forever, and that’s assuming that we keep our medical systems intact and in place through this period, which is not guaranteed.
These pathogens will also be emerging in the same areas likely to see an increased number of human population centers, providing ample opportunity to begin an outbreak. So even if you think, as some of the wealthy elites of the world seem to, that running north into the warming tundra is going to insulate you from the worst effects of climate change and the unrest that is going to come with it, you should reconsider. Your chances might be even worse up there, and by migrating into the old tundra, you might end up giving these pathogens a way to spread to the rest of us further south.
You cannot run from climate change
The point of all this is to emphasize the essential point that is lost on a great many people: you cannot outrun climate change.
Wherever you go, it will have gotten there before you, and whatever problems you thought you escaped, climate change has plenty more to keep you busy.
While some parts of the planet will be hurt more by climate change than others, even those that get off the easiest in terms of direct impact, the best parts of our future planet after climate change will be worse - and probably far worse - than you're going to find on Earth today.
Everyone will be endangered by the climate crisis, which is why the only real solution to this problem is to take action now to reduce our carbon emissions dramatically to avoid the worst of what climate change has in store for us. Whatever it costs us today pales in comparison to what it will cost in the future when we are losing entire cities to the sea.