Book review “Nomad Century: How Climate Migration Will Reshape Our World”, by Gaia Vince
First, Vince insists that we urgently decarbonize power generation from fossil fuels to solar, wind, geothermal, tidal and nuclear energy, while electrifying transport, heating and all high energy intensity.
So far so commonplace, though many would disagree with his enthusiasm for nuclear power.
His remaining recommendations are, to say the least, less routine. An international authority must oversee the orderly migration of hundreds of millions or billions (different parts of the book give different numbers) of climate refugees. With a warming of 4 degrees Celsius, “the vast majority of humanity will live in high latitude areas”. That would amount to at least 5 billion people.
These refugees must leave warmer latitudes in Asia, Africa and Latin America and resettle in Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Northern Europe and Russia as well as Patagonia, Tasmania, New Zealand and in Antarctica. Someone has to build archipelagos of new cities in the far north and far south of the planet to house them. In the meantime, to stabilize the climate, we must abandon delicacy and embrace several forms of geoengineering. Finally, to do it right, we need to empower a “global governance body” to set the planet’s thermostat.
“Nomad Century” is a curious mix of apocalyptic planetary pessimism and boundless optimism about the best angels in human nature. Vince looks at scenarios for the ongoing climate crisis and chooses those that come closest to the alarmist end of the spectrum, while still, in my view, falling within the bounds of the plausible. There is one notable exception – where she writes about warming “by a few degrees [Celsius] every decade,” which is well outside the range of scientific projections.
It foresees massive tragedies in the tropics and subtropics due to oppressive heat, water shortages and crop failures. She might be right – the climate crisis is likely to be the overarching problem of the 21st century. She believes that Asians, Africans and Latin Americans will not be able to adapt to the scale of these challenges. Maybe she’s there too.
Vince’s prescription of assisted mass migration, however, is a recipe for political disaster. She imagines that a “United Nations Migration Organization with real powers to compel governments to accept refugees” could persuade or coerce Russians, Scandinavians, Britons, Greenlanders, Canadians, Alaskans and New -Zealanders to welcome hundreds of millions (or billions) of poor foreigners into their country. environment and to help provide them with jobs, health care and language training.
But such gigantic flows of refugees, especially if their resettlement were supervised by an international body endowed with “powers to compel”, would trigger torrents of indignation. Vince’s vision calls for every high latitude country to accept refugees in numbers that would overwhelm the native-born. A new generation of Orbans and Bannons – and worse – would eagerly encourage and exploit anti-migrant fears. Pogroms would proliferate.
She evokes the history of the Nansen passport, designed in the 1920s to help stateless refugees, as support for the feasibility of her plan. But only about 450,000 Nansen passports have been issued in the 16 years of their existence. If hundreds of millions had been issued, no country would have honored them.
Vince acknowledges some of the difficulties, noting that for his plan to succeed, humans would first have to let go of racism, chauvinism, and nationalism and become citizens of the world. Like John Lennon and Yoko Ono, he cannot be blamed for his lack of imagination.
His prescription also implausibly assumes that it is possible to build hundreds of new cities in the higher latitudes. Boreal landscapes have thin soils, exposed during the last glaciation, which even in a warmer world could barely support crops. She recommends paying for the wave of urban construction and the settlement of refugees with “an international tax” or “public-private partnerships”.
Vince’s optimism extends to geoengineering. She considers it “morally indefensible” not to use the tools we have that could cool the planet. Her toolkit includes the standard ideas: She recommends fertilizing the oceans with iron to stimulate plankton growth and thereby remove carbon from the atmosphere. She urges the creation of an international authority to oversee the injection of sulfate aerosols into the stratosphere to reflect the sun back into space. She regrets the “taboo” against geoengineering, choosing a word that passes caution off as an irrational fixation of a blind tribe. She is thrilled with the risks of experimenting with large-scale earth systems, saying that if geoengineering interventions produce unfortunate side effects, we could just quit. This does not account for nonlinear responses, or tipping points, which can tip complex systems such as the weather into a new condition from which it is extremely difficult to return.
Vince’s view on geoengineering also involves political optimism. Any “body of global governance” capable of adjusting the thermostat of the planet would quickly come up against irreconcilable differences. It’s hard enough for a family to agree on the appropriate thermostat setting for a home. She is aware of this problem, but her only response is that the body should be named immediately to start working.
Vince has read a lot but often leaves his sources in silence. Readers who want to know where she gets the idea that the ancient Greeks descended from nomadic steppe warriors, or that 40% of East Africa’s rainfall comes from groundwater exploitation in India, are left in the dark. It is therefore more difficult than it should be to assess the quality of the science on which it is based.
Vince’s misguided recommendations come from having her heart in the right place. She is deeply, and rightly, concerned about the likely fate of billions of the world’s less fortunate as our climate continues to warm. And she is right to point out the perils that climate change portends. But “Nomad Century” recommends remedies that could easily turn out to be worse than the disease. His proposals for mass migrations under international scrutiny and large-scale geo-engineering require a faith in widespread sanctity and wisdom that humanity has yet to show.
JR McNeill is a professor of environmental history at Georgetown University.
How climate migration will reshape our world