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Changing Climate, Changing Borders


With the intensification of global warming, millions of people will be forced to migrate from regions that become uninhabitable. In this emerging reality, the conventional borders etched on maps must be reimagined, with a focus on accommodating the shifting environmental dynamics rather than the traditional notions of geopolitics and sovereignty.




It is common for crises at the borders dominating the news with the main focus usually being on the political ‘battles’, rather than human rights violations, the shirking of international responsibilities, and the agonising plight of those pushed back and to the brink of human dignity. But this might also be a moment to think about the climate crisis and what globalism means in a world where borders ultimately can’t offer protection against the most serious threats.


To illustrate the point, last year, Central America was hammered by an unprecedented hurricane season, fueled in part by climate change. The ferocity of storms like Eta and Iota was magnified in the Northern Triangle countries – Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador – where climate-induced drought had already pushed 3.5 million people into the jaws of food insecurity. The economic toll, relative to their GDP, is greater than that done by the worst storms ever to hit the United States, yet the people of these countries did comparatively little to cause the climate crisis—whereas the 4% of Americans have produced more greenhouse gases than the population of almost any other nation. The inescapable reality stands firm: these displaced, climate-vulnerable populations have a legitimate claim on America. No wall can stop the force of our own carbon emissions from reaching their doorstep.


“The four horsemen of the Anthropocene”


Amidst the interconnected web of climate impacts, according to science journalist and author of ‘Nomadic Century’ Gaia Vince, there are four primary environmental extremes, "the four horsemen of the Anthropocene" – extreme heat, drought, flooding, and fire. These calamitous weather events have already become more frequent and intense in recent years, and as the climate crisis escalates, their severity will only amplify. Consequently, the ability to recover between such events will dwindle, technically leaving individuals with one option: to relocate, hence becoming climate migrants.


But what is climate migration?

Pursuant to the International Organization for Migration, climate migration encompasses "the movement of a person or groups of persons who, predominantly for reasons of sudden or progressive change in the environment due to climate change, are obliged to leave their habitual place of residence, or choose to do so, either temporarily or permanently, within a State or across an international border". It falls under the broader category of environmental migration, specifying a distinct form where environmental changes are specifically linked to climate change.


While the definition put forth by IOM serves as a tool for analysis and advocacy rather than holding legal authority, it's important to note that the term "climate migration" finds recognition in the legally binding Cancun Agreements on climate change adaptation. These agreements, ratified by the participating States of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 2010, acknowledge three distinct categories of movement stemming from the impacts of climate change: displacement, migration, and planned relocation.


This highlights the significance of addressing the multifaceted dimensions of human mobility in response to our changing climate.


Changing Climate, Changing Borders

Current discourse recognises two primary categories of borders, the first one being "true" borders, defined by the natural constraints of our planet's geography and physical properties. As Vince elucidates, these boundaries restrict human habitation in regions such as Antarctica or the Sahara Desert, where large-scale human populations are simply unfeasible. There are also "geopolitical" borders, man-made demarcations that serve as territorial markers on maps, subject to the whims of politics and human agency.


Illustration by Peter Kuper

But soon, a new unprecedented type of border is likely to emerge transcending political control and human influence—the borders shaped by climate change. This unprecedented phenomenon will exert environmental pressure that reshapes the very boundaries of our planet, redefining where populations can exist, flourish, and ultimately survive.


Which areas are expected to be at the heart of this transformative shift?

The tropical belt spanning the middle of the planet, island nations-with Small Island Developing States already experiencing crucial changes of their surroundings and livelihoods-, coastal areas, and river-adjacent zones are particularly susceptible. Alarmingly, many of the world's largest cities are situated in these vulnerable riverine regions.

This portrayal of the impending climate-driven borders underlines the urgency of understanding and addressing the implications for global populations. The geographical areas mentioned hold significant importance, both in terms of their ecological vulnerability and the concentration of human settlements.

What’s going on now?

Already record numbers of individuals are being compelled to flee their homes with each passing year. In 2021, the figure reached a record high of 89.3 million people, twice the number from a decade ago. This number escalated even further, surpassing 100 million in 2022, with climate-related disasters displacing a greater number of people than conflicts. Devastating floods uprooted 33 million individuals in Pakistan alone, while millions more across Africa faced the harsh realities of drought and the looming spectre of famine, spanning from the Horn of Africa to the western coast of the continent.


During COP27, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi urged global leaders to take decisive action to address the humanitarian repercussions of global warming. The issue of climate displacement was a focal point at COP27 agenda, where a significant (although met with disappointment due to the voluntary nature of its contributions) Loss and Damage fund was established to support the most vulnerable countries grappling with the aftermath of the climate crisis. The change required needs to be "transformational" according to the UNHRC. "We cannot leave millions of displaced people and their hosts to face the consequences of a changing climate alone," said Grandi.


On the 29th of March 2023, in a unanimous decision, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution requesting an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on the obligations of States with respect to climate change. The Republic of Vanuatu spearheaded this initiative in a 2021 announcement supported by grassroots youth groups.

What’s next?

Mass displacement of millions of people over the coming years is expected, but what’s not yet determined, is the scale at which this will occur. While it may seem like a distant concern, the timeline for action appears shorter than we think. Some nations, like Kiribati and Bangladesh, take proactive measures, facilitating the migration of their people before the unabated impacts of climate change force their hand.

The concept of preparing for and managing mass migration now is akin to a "temporary adaptation and management" strategy to combat the climate crisis. When coupled with concurrent climate action and restoration initiatives, Vince claims, this could potentially make the at-risk parts of the world more liveable again in the future. The question arising is how long we can afford to prioritize mitigation over adaptation and which of the two should take precedence to ensure climate migration remains as "low impact" as possible.


There is no dispute that climate change is 'stretching' borders as we know them. Are we heading towards open borders? Open borders do not have to mean no borders or the abolition of nation states. Rather, it beckons us to explore alternative forms of governance and redefine our understanding of nationhood. Will climate-affected states seek to purchase or lease territory in safer havens? Might we witness the rise of charter cities operating under distinct jurisdictions and rules? Or perhaps floating states that build new territory upon the waves?


It will take work to reinvent the concept of the nation state, so it becomes more inclusive in order to strengthen local connections while forging greater and more equitable global networks. If we’re going to keep driving climate change, as well as endure the damage we’ve already done, then our concept of nationality and sovereignty is going to have become more flexible – the time for territorial tunnel-vision is over.


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