Where We’ll End Up Living as the Planet Burns

WWhile nations are trying to cut their carbon emissions and adapt to warmer climates, the elephant in the room is that for large parts of the globe, the local conditions are too extreme. There is no other way of adapting. To survive, people will need to relocate.

The next 50 years will see increased heat, combined with greater humidity, make huge swathes worldwide uninhabitable. Massive numbers will have to flee from the tropics, coasts, and former arable lands. You will either be one of them or they will give you housing. This migration has already begun—we have all seen the streams of people fleeing drought-hit areas in Latin America, Africa, and Asia where farming and other rural livelihoods have become impossible.

Over the past decade, global migration has increased by two-thirds. The issue of dealing with the rapidly rising number of refugees will be more important as the earth heats.

We can—and we must—prepare. A radical plan to ensure humanity’s survival in a hotter world involves building new large cities to the far north and abandoning vast areas of the unsustainable tropics. This involves adapting food, energy and infrastructure to the changing environment. As billions are forced from their homes, they will need new housing.

Cooperating like never before is our best chance of success: dissociating the political map and geography. It may sound absurd, but we must look at the world from a new perspective and create plans that are based on geography, ecology, and geology. In other words: identify the areas with the greatest freshwater supply, safe temperatures, solar energy sources, and plan for population growth, food, and energy production. The good news is, there’s plenty of room on Earth. If we allow 20 square meters of space per person—around double the minimum habitable size for a house allowed under the International Residential Code—11 billion people would need 220,000 square kilometers of land to live on. There would be plenty of room to house everyone on earth in a single country—the surface area of Canada alone is 9.9 million square kilometers. Of course, I’m not proposing anything as absurd, but this is something to reflect on when it is claimed that a country is “too full” for more people.

Unfortunately, climate change will have an impact on every part of the globe. All places will experience some form of change as a result of climate changes, either directly or through the indirect effects of the global interconnected socio-economic and biophysical systems. Extreme events are already occurring around the world and will continue to hit “safe” places. However, some areas will be more adaptable than others and will make it difficult to live in these places. Bear in mind that many places will be uncomfortable if not intolerable by 2050—around the lifespan of most mortgages—we need to start planning where we make our homes now. By 2100 it will be a different planet, so let’s focus on some of the livable options.

Global heating is shifting the geographical position of our species’ temperature niche northwards, and people will follow. The optimum climate for human productivity—the best conditions for both agricultural and non­agricultural output—turns out to be an average temperature of 11°C to 15°C, according to a 2020 study. This global niche is where human populations have concentrated for millennia, including for the entirety of human civilization, so it’s unsurprising that our crops, livestock and other economic practices are ideally adapted to these conditions. The researchers show that, depending on scenarios of population growth and warming, ‘1 to 3 billion people are projected to be left outside the climate conditions that have served humanity well over the past 6,000 years.’ They add that, ‘in the absence of migration, one third of the global population is projected to experience mean average temperatures [that are currently found mostly] in the Sahara.’

In general, it is best to stay away from the Equator as well small islands that will shrink or desert areas, coastlines and other high-risk locations. Due to the fire danger, it is best to stay clear of forests and rainforests. The shift in population direction is towards the inland and to lakes at higher elevations, northern latitudes, will be a gradual process.

Looking at the globe, it is immediately clear that land is mainly distributed in the north—less than a third of Earth’s land is in the southern hemisphere and most of that is either in the tropics or Antarctica. There is very little opportunity for climate migrants seeking refuge in the South. Patagonia, which is currently suffering from droughts and is the best option for climate migrants, is also the most viable. However, agriculture and settlement will continue to be possible there as global temperatures rise. North is the best place to migrate. Temperatures in these safer regions will rise—and will rise faster in higher latitudes than at the equator – but the average absolute temperature will still be far lower than in the tropics. Of course climate disruption brings extreme weather, and nowhere will be spared these increasingly common events—Canada reached temperatures of 50°C in 2021, making British Columbia hotter than the Sahara Desert, and then, a few months later, was hit by deadly floods and landslides that displaced thousands. Fires have blazed across Siberia’s tundra, and melting permafrost is a shifting, unstable ground on which to build infrastructure.

Fortunately, wealthier countries are found in the north latitudes, which are home to strong institutions and stable governments, and are well-positioned to meet the technological and social challenges of the 21st century.

Problematically, many of them have also struggled politically with immigration to a far greater extent than have many much poorer countries (poor countries also host by far the greatest numbers of displaced people), and with a migrant “crisis” that is far smaller than the great climate migration we will see over the next 75 years. It may be more possible to shift a political­-social mindset in the space of a few years, however, than to return the tropics to habitability. Consider that most of Europe’s nations each rely on tens of thousands of migrant workers just to harvest the crops they grow today. The demand for labour is expected to increase as the northern regions have better agricultural conditions.

North of the 45°N parallel—which runs through Michigan in North America, France, Croatia, Mongolia, and Xinjiang in China, for instance—will be the twenty-first century’s booming haven: it represents 15 per cent of the planet’s area but holds 29 per cent of its ice ­free land, and is currently home to a small fraction of the world’s (aging) people. It’s also entering that optimum climate for human productivity with mean average temperatures of around 13°C.

Inland lake systems, like the Great Lakes region of Canada and the U.S., will see a huge influx of migrants—reversing the previous exodus from these areas—as the vast bodies of water should keep the region fairly temperate. Duluth in Minnesota on Lake Superior bills itself as the most climate­-proof city in the U.S., although it’s already dealing with fluctuating water levels. Madison and Minneapolis are other desirable cities in the Upper Midwest. The threat of severe heatwaves is greater for cities in the South. The University of Notre Dame’s Global Adaptation Initiative researchers concluded that “eight of the top 10 cities facing the highest likelihood of extreme heat in 2040 are located in the Midwest,” including cities from Detroit to Grand Rapids. Further east locations become more dangerous quickly. However, Buffalo (New York State), Toronto and Ottawa, Canada, are safe choices for migrants coming from the coasts.

The only trail running along Lake Superior’s shore is the 1.6-mile Cakewalk, north of Grand Marais. It runs parallel to the Duluth Lake Walk. Melanie McManus walks along the shoreline of Lake Superior to the Tombolo Island.

Brian Peterson-Star Tribune/Getty Images

Some cities may be able to survive on the coast by learning how to adapt and prepare. Boston is far enough north for protection from the expected extreme heat. Planners developed a strategy to raise roads and create coastal defenses. They also plan to establish marshes that can absorb floodwaters. New York City, which faces extreme threats but might be too important to fail, is similarly planning extensive defences, although it’s unclear how effective these will prove. The city’s Big U plan, a massive seawall to defend the Financial District of Lower Manhattan, would expose anyone north of West 57th Street to the ocean waves. The city is already dealing with regular inundations, which in 2021 killed dozens, and saw people swimming in flooded subway stations and geysers erupting out of the streets’ drainage covers. People living in flood-prone basement apartments were among the many who lost their lives when Hurricane Ida struck New York City. The most safe coastal cities will have coasts far enough north to guard against rising sea levels and strong enough coastlines.

The rest of the U.S. is likely to be affected by one or more of these factors. There will be worsening tornadoes in the central corridor. Below the 42nd Parallel, there will be heatwaves. Wild fires. Drought will also be a problem. At the coasts flooding, erosion, and freshwater fouling may be a concern. Today’s desirable locations, such as Florida, California and Hawaii, will be increasingly deserted for the more pleasant climates of former Rustbelt cities that will experience a renaissance, as a globally diverse community of new immigrants revitalizes them.

Read More: If You Want to Know a Country’s Economic Future, Check How Far From the Equator It Is

Alaska appears to be the ideal place to call home in the United States. Cities will still need to develop to handle the millions of people who are heading to the Anthropocene Arctic, which is rapidly growing. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Climate Resilience Screening Index 2017, Kodiak Island in Alaska was ranked as having the lowest climate risk. An analysis of climate models shows that Alaska’s average monthly temperature could reach Florida levels by 2047. As with everywhere, location is key, though—the residents of Newtok, Alaska, are relocating because melting permafrost and increasing erosion have caused portions of their village to wash away. Native communities are already facing huge difficulties due to melting of the tundras and retreating of ice sheet. Their way of living is now being permanently altered. Their terrible loss, and that faced by native wildlife—not to mention other dangers, including unknown pathogens lurking in the currently frozen tundras, waiting to be exposed—will be countered by the vast opportunities for development in the New North. This is where many of the tropical migrants will create new homes during the turbulent twenty­-first century, while humanity battles to restore a liveable globe. Whether self­-governed indigenous communities will welcome this influx of southern migrants or reject what is the latest in a long history of often-violent intrusions remains to be seen. But people will be moving north. They will need accommodation.

The New North

New opportunities for agriculture and an active shipping route along the North Sea Passage will transform the north. The melting of Greenland’s ice sheet—the largest on Earth after Antarctica—will expose new areas for people to live, farm and mine minerals. There is an abundance of useful land and soil beneath Greenland’s Arctic ice, Russia, America, and Canada. This will create a network of Arctic cities.

Nuuk, one of these cities is expected to expand rapidly in the next decade. The capital of Greenland (an autonomous outpost of Denmark) sits just below the Arctic Circle, where the effects of climate change are obvious—residents already talk of the years ‘back when it was cold’. Fisheries here are experiencing a boost: less ice means boats can fish close to shore year round, while warmer ocean temperatures have drawn new fish species further north into Greenland’s waters. The size of some halibuts and cod has increased, which adds to the commercial value of fish catches. With a shorter growing season, and abundant irrigation, the land exposed to retreating glaciers is opening up for farming. Nuuk’s farmers are now harvesting new crops, including potatoes, radishes, and broccoli. Offshore exploration and mining are also possible due to the retreating ice. Nuuk lies at the threshold of true economic benefit. Five hydroelectric power plants are already in operation to convert the country’s abundant meltwater into electricity. Greenland may even become a forest by the year 2100 according to some projections. You might find it one of the finest places to live.

Looking over the Old Town. Nuuk, the capital of Greenland in late autumn.

Martin Zwick REDA/Universal Images Group

Global heating will continue to be beneficial for Canada, Siberia, other Russian regions, Iceland, Scandinavia, and Scotland. The Arctic net primary productivity is how much vegetation grows per year. It will almost double in the 2080s and there will be no more cold winters. Growing seasons will significantly expand, particularly around today’s farmland. The Nordic nations already enjoy relatively warm temperatures because of the North Atlantic currents, but continental temperatures, which can plunge below –40°C in winter, will also ease, making interior locations more bearable. Nordic nations are comparatively high on adaptability readiness, and low in climate change vulnerability.

Global heating has already boosted Sweden’s per capita GDP by 25 per cent, a Stanford study found. The biggest greenhouse gas emitters “enjoy on average about 10 per cent higher per capita GDP today than they would have in a world without warming, while the lowest emitters have been dragged down by about 25 per cent,” the researchers found. There is a moral case for tropical migrants being included in economies of the northern hemisphere. The researchers estimate that India’s GDP per capita has lagged by 31 per cent owing to global heating; Nigeria’s has lagged by 29 per cent; Indonesia’s by 27 per cent; and Brazil’s by 25 per cent. Together, those four countries hold about a quarter of the world’s population.

Rapid ice melt will make the Northwest Passage—the sea route through the Arctic connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans—open and navigable for shipping for much of the year, cutting shipping times by around 40 per cent. The region will be able to do more business, trade and tourism. There are also opportunities for mining exploration. Canada’s port cities such as Churchill, Manitoba, Canada will benefit. This barren outpost, wedged between boreal forest, Arctic tundra and Hudson Bay, has just 1,100 residents, who rely almost entirely on polar­bear tourism. Churchill’s land was considered so undesirable that in 1990 the US freight company OmniTrax bought the town’s port from the Canadian government for $7. However, with an active migration programme recruiting people and businesses from around the world, the newly developed city could support international trade through its revitalized port on the Hudson Bay—the only commercial deep­water port in northern Canada. It could be a crucial stopping point and unloading port on the Northwest Passage, which is used by cargo ships arriving from Shanghai. Churchill is connected to Winnipeg and the rest of Canada—and the U.S.—via its restored railway line. And it’s just over 100 kilometres from Nunavet, Canada’s newest indigenous province, a growing Inuit­governed territory.

Churchill might become a major city. Canada is a major destination for immigrants. Indeed, the Canadian government hopes to triple its population in 2100 by allowing immigration. Marshall Burke, Deputy Director of the Center on Food Security and the Environment at Stanford University, calculated that global heating could raise the average income in Canada by 250 per cent due to greatly expanded growing seasons, reduced infrastructure costs and increased maritime shipping.15 With a stable, non­corrupt democracy, one­fifth of the world’s freshwater reserves and as much as 4.2 million square kilometres of newly arable farmland, Canada could be the world’s new breadbasket later this century.

Russia will be another net winner—its 2020 national action plan explicitly describes ways to “use the advantages” of climate warming. According to the U.S. National Intelligence Council, Russia “has the potential to gain the most from increasingly temperate weather.” The country is already the world’s biggest exporter of wheat, and its agricultural dominance is set to grow as its climate improves. By 2080, more than half of Siberia’s permafrost will have gone, making the frozen north more attractive, with longer growing seasons, and able to support much larger populations, according to models. Although there may be some benefits, it will also cause significant problems for climate, as well many settlements dependent on frozen foundations to build buildings, roads and railway tracks. There are many engineering options that can help with this problem but they tend to be expensive.

Scotland, Estonia, Estonia and high-water sites like Carcassonne, France (surrounded by rivers), are just a few of the places expected to see expansions or new cities. In the global south, as mentioned, there is far less landmass in the high latitudes, but Patagonia, Tasmania and New Zealand, and perhaps the newly ice­free parts of the western Antarctic coast, offer potential for cities. In Antarctica alone, up to 17,000 square kilometres of new, ice­free land is projected to appear by the end of the century. This could offer an opportunity for development, but I fervently hope that Earth’s last wild continent will remain a precious nature reserve.

People will also move higher up, to the Rocky Mountains of North America or the Alps of Europe. Boulder, Colorado and Denver are two of the most popular US cities above 1,600m. Ljubljana (Slovenia) is another high-altitude location that has a rich underground water supply and lush agricultural land.

People want safer locations and it is better to move to areas with good governance, productivity, and other resources. There are many locations where both of these things can be found. While some of the migration involves expanding rapidly existing towns, others will require new construction in areas like Greenland or Russian Siberia.

To ensure safe settlement of hundreds of millions of migrants, it may be necessary to force the purchase of all land currently held by the United States. This would include compensation as well as a share in new cities and the development of their industry. This could lead to a new type of international citizenship. It could mean richer, safer ­latitude states becoming ‘care­ taker states’ for poorer, more vulnerable ones, during the crisis period of global heating until planetary restoration. This could include charter cities and states within states. It may also involve the extermination of some 200 national states and the consolidation of the few remaining into geopolitical entities. There are many alternative visions to today’s status quo of nation states, borders and passports – which are, after all, relatively recent.

For example, allowing global free movement would help boost national economies and save or improve billions of people’s lives. Open borders would, it’s fair to assume, result in very large flows of people—estimations range from a few million to more than 1 billion—and it could increase global GDP by tens of trillions of dollars. We have so many opportunities to win despite the terrible losses we’ve suffered this century. This century will see millions of people move. But we can make it work by planning and managing a peaceful transition into a more secure, fairer world. It is up to us to try.

Adapted from Vincent’s new book NOMAD CENTURY: How Climate Migration Will Reshape Our World, published by Flatiron Books

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