Why Do People Move Countries? Global Warming?
People around the world are increasingly on the move, driven by climate change.
Posted Jan 05, 2018
The breakup of European empires since the 1950s has seen a veritable explosion of sovereign-states. Whereas there were a few dozen countries in the world in 1945, today, we find more than 200.
At the same time as nations split apart and proliferate, people keep leaving their places of birth in ever-increasing numbers. The UN estimates that 258 million people were international migrants in 2017, up from 220 million in 2010 and 173 million in 2000.
Despite the original scars of dispossessing native peoples and enslaving Africans, the United States boasts a heritage of embracing such demographic difference. Hence President Kennedy famously and proudly describing the US in 1963 as "a nation of immigrants." That speech was delivered shortly before the reform of our migration policy, which had placed a premium on white arrivals from Europe over the previous century.
Immigration has become a huge media topic over the last few decades—mostly in a very negative way. But despite persistent criticisms, the US continues to welcome people from elsewhere; and like Europe and Asia, it remains a preferred destination.
The standard narrative is that people arrive in search of economic opportunity, political freedom, personal safety, and family reunification, and often encounter negativity from locals.
Few of us recognize that the increased numbers of migrants and debates over their social, economic, and cultural impact also articulate to climate change.
Natural disasters are sometimes said to encourage migration. They do not. Specific weather is irrelevant; its average (climate) is the key.
Longitudinal research demonstrates that when people working in agriculture find their means of living eroded because temperatures rise above optimal levels for the growth and cultivation of produce, they decide to leave their home nations. Major African and Asian migration, in particular, are tied to climate change. Recent work connects climate change and migration to Europe between 2000 and 2014 by people seeking political asylum.
Some asylum-seekers are from war-torn nations, notably Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. But the crises they face have climatic elements. In the Syrian case, for example, one cause of the extended civil war was a protracted drought that saw tens of thousands of people fleeing rural areas for the cities, which put social services, the economy, and state legitimacy under pressure. This story is in keeping with the Pentagon’s assessment that climate change is a threat to peace and US security. (Regrettably, the current Administration has changed its mind.)
The corollary of migration is a prevailing tension between what people leave behind, take with them, experience, reject, and adapt. The globe is full of people who feel as though they do not belong, either where they leave or arrive—and they meet many ‘hosts’ who do not welcome them. The essential hybridity of humanity is challenged when ethnonationalism encounters global mobility, with each shaping the other in a frequently uncomfortable way.
This isn’t just a US problem. Take the current debate in Spain over Catalan independence from Madrid. Two of the region’s most powerless groups, working-class migrants from Málaga and Latin America, built its infrastructure and characterize its proletariat. Catalans often refer to them derisively as “xarnega.” Not surprisingly, many of them decline to learn Català and oppose independence. And, at the same moment, as Catalans’ claims to autonomy are being acclaimed in much of the world, 60,000 Poles can be found marching with banners that read: “Europe will be white or deserted” and “Clean blood,” very much as per the slur “xarnega."
We have both been migrants. We know what it’s like to enter a country that does not use our first language, and are also familiar with welcoming people to our own countries who struggle with cultural difference.
When you first arrive somewhere new, the media are among the most important, and potentially puzzling, of the cultural hosts awaiting you. They teach migrant audiences about everyday conduct, formal and informal law and lore, conversation topics—and their own status. An encouraging element for new arrivals in the US is that press coverage of migration almost always refers to JFK’s speech—much to the frustration of ethno-nationalists.
If we are to continue and develop our proud heritage of migration, we need not only media coverage that reminds us of our historical connection to the rest of the world, as per Kennedy’s legacy. We need that coverage to connect the dots to current stimuli of immigration, such as climate change.
So far, US journalism has made only token efforts to link the plight of migratory populations to global warming. That failure to focus on our common bond amplifies the discourse of anti-immigrant ideas based on nationalism, xenophobia, and individualism. A greener media can help us appreciate our shared humanity