World doesn’t have bandwidth to handle climate change-led migration

Sunita Narain | September 5, 2019 | Leave a Comment Download as PDF

High water

This blog was originally published by Down to Earth on August 19, 2019.

Every year is the hottest when immigrants are already living on the margins of survival. 

I am sharing an image that has been haunting me. We are locked in a room where we can see from our narrowly opened window that the weather outside has gone berserk — fires in forests, heat waves, extreme rain and storms, all happening as predicted. But our screams are not being heard. As if, it is happening somewhere else. Or not real.

I know this sounds over-dramatic. But it is a fact. The impact of what is clearly a changing weather because of a warmer planet is happening in our face. But we are so distracted — trade wars, Brexit, immigration, economy (good and bad), nationalism, war and much more that goes with it are predominant.

Climate change could not have happened at a worse time in human history it would seem. We simply don’t have the bandwidth to handle it. This is when it becomes clear that things are spiraling out of control. Every year, we are told, is the hottest year, till the next year comes around. Then a new record is broken. It is getting worse. That we know. We hear it; we can even feel it now.

We need to understand what this existential crisis means to people, already living on the margins of survival. It is a matter of record that every extreme weather event — flood or drought — forces people to migrate, searching for work.

It pushes them out of their homes — sometimes this is temporary and sometimes relocation becomes permanent. But now, climate change has become that last straw breaking the camel’s back.

Amitav Ghosh, in his new novel Gun Island, evocatively takes us through the generations of immigrants; when weather disturbances made people leave their homes in search of new livelihoods in the past and now.

The migrant has always been that human face of change — good and bad. It is also a fact that migration is not only because of the push but also because of the pull — the grass is greener on the other side of the Mexican wall.

Today’s interconnected world has simultaneous jeopardies — one, it transports climate-altering carbon dioxide emissions from one country to the global atmosphere and two, it transports global news at the speed of mobile telephony. The push and the pull will only increase in this context.

The question is what will be our response to this induced and hastened migration? Already immigration is defining the politics of many countries. In India, we are discussing how to count “outsiders” and we don’t know what we will do once we have counted them.

In Europe, the public mood (and elections) is being determined by images of hordes of boat people landing illegally; in the US, the wall and the millions that are awaiting entry is taking over airwaves, social media and other public spaces. The “immigration” narrative is real, and already we are doing a really bad job in handling our response — both in words and in action.

It is already adding to societal fear and insecurity; bitterly polarising communities and feeding the nationalist brigade.

Just think. When a white supremacist opened fire and massacred people in El Paso, Texas, USA, he said he was doing this to protect the world from climate change. His cold logic, written on his now taken down blog, is that Americans will never give up their lifestyle, which he accepts is destroying the planet. His answer: remove enough people so that the US lifestyle can be sustainable. Kill them. Stop them from entering the US.

In the past I would have dismissed this rant as madness. But now we are getting to a point where the two crisis points will intersect, indeed implode. As yet, we have little actual data on the causes of migration. We talk glibly about climate refugees because it is hard to understand the nature and gravity of this problem.

This is not to say that migration is bad. The fact is cities and countries have been created because of people who have left homes and settled to build new prosperity.

In India, we know that internal migration is the name of the employment game. Every region has vast numbers of people who come from the regions of distress — hit by flood or drought or destitution — or come because they aspire new opportunity. Every Indian city is an amalgamation of different regions, languages and food habits. But it is reaching tipping points.

In India, we have no idea of the number of people who are migrating — in short- and long-term — because the last census was conducted a decade ago. But from the sheer number of illegal and unauthorised settlements springing up in cities, it is clear that the number of new settlers is huge. What this will do to politics is now apparent — from domicile reservations to migrant counting. It will only get worse.

I am writing this without an ending. I have no conclusions to offer. But I do believe it is time we discussed the true nature of our climate jeopardy. In human terms.

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  • Dear Arnold Byron,

    You report,

    “We are told by population scientists that there is a strong possibility that the population will naturally stabilize at about ten and a half billion…..”

    According to the best available scientific evidence, this statement is false. The population growth of the human species has not ever and will not ever stabilize until such time as the root cause of absolute global human population numbers is openly acknowledged and sensibly addressed. The fantastical idea that “human population growth is coming to end soon” or the wishful thinking that human population numbers somehow automatically stabilize at some unknown point in the foreseeable future are preposterous. The ecological science of human population dynamics is clear and perhaps too simple: the research indicates that human population numbers appear or not as a function of food supply.

    Homo sapiens is a creature of the earth. Understand that food is the tap root of life for the human species. There may be other factors that help sustain human life, but food is the ‘tap root’ for the growth of absolute human population numbers, just as is the case with other species of earth.

    Our problem is a biological one. A positive feedback loop has been established in the food-population relationship because natural limiting factors to the unbridled growth of absolute human population numbers have been eliminated by human creativity and ingenuity. Human beings are unique creatures of earth. We are exceptional in many wondrous ways, but not in terms of population dynamics. Hence the recent ‘bloom’ of absolute global human population numbers that are primarily caused by spectacular increases in the food supply which is derived from greatly enhanced production and distribution capabilities.

    The conundrum: increasing food production annually to meet the needs of a growing population is fueling a human population explosion. With every passing year more people are being fed and more people are going hungry.

    Perhaps we can agree to a desperate need for an adequate-enough explanation for ‘why’ we have ended up where are, in this global predicament. A growing body of unfalsified research has been ubiquitously denied and consequently not widely shared much less consensually validated by population experts of science as well as those professionals with appropriate expertise in the fields of demography and economics. We cannot stop, reduce or stabilize population growth until we know what is causing absolute global human population to continue skyrocketing, despite declining total fertility rates virtually everywhere on the surface of Earth.

    Sound scientific research provides straightforward empirical data of a non-recursive biological problem that is independent of economic, political, ethical, social, legal, religious, and cultural considerations. This means human population dynamics is like the population dynamics of other species. It also means that global human population growth is a viciously cycling positive feedback loop, a relationship between food and population in which food availability drives population growth, and population growth fuels the false perception, the mistaken impression, the fatally flawed misconception that food production needs to be increased annually to meet the needs of a growing population.

    A new biological understanding is emerging from ongoing scientific inquiries of the human population. It is simply this: as is the case with other species, human population numbers appear or not as a function of food availability; food is the independent (not the dependent) variable in the relationship between food and population numbers; and human population dynamics is essentially similar to (not different from) the population dynamics of other species.

    With thanks for all you are doing,


    Steve Salmony

  • Arnold Byron

    The author enumerates so many things: climate change, migration because of flood, drought destitution or political unrest. These problems will only be increasingly destructive to humanity, everywhere in the world. The population was at three billion when I graduated from high school. Now it has more than doubled. the generations living today have to accept that we are the generations that must do something. I believe that humanity can get past this global problem of climate change i.e., overpopulation.

    First of all we need to make a comparison.

    [1] We are told by the population scientists that there is a strong possibility that the population will naturally stabilize at about ten and a half billion, provided that we emancipate, encourage and enable females so that females will naturally regulate population growth. Stabilizing population growth is accomplished by each female giving birth to two children. If this should happen then the challenge will be to feed a population of ten and a half billion people for thousands, millions, perhaps a billion years into the future. Let us all be reminded that at this point in time we are having trouble feeding seven and a half billion people.

    [2] I have put forward an idea for a global office that will be created by the nations working together, with the aid and assistance of the colleges and universities worldwide. The colleges and universities have the intellect and creativity to convince and aid the nations in ratifying a global office that will not become a global dictatorship. The global office will be given the authority to reduce the population in an orderly, controlled, manner by requiring strict use of contraception after a female has had one child. Contraception would be accomplished by IUD’s for women and vasectomies for men. The global office will have local offices everywhere in the world and will work at feeding the people as well as helping people to a new perspective on family planning. If people can have only one child then laws will have to be promulgated to help people if their contraception fails and a second pregnancy occurs. The point is that a one child per woman program can be done worldwide by the generations living today. After perhaps three generations the population will be stabilized at a size that can easily be able to live within available resources. At that time each woman will be able to have two children.

    The comparison is, whether we cap the population at ten and a half billion people or a much reduced number, each female will be able to have two children. I suspect that at some time in the future there will have to be controls to prevent the population from increasing over ten and a half billion. Under either scenario every woman will be able to have two children and humanity will end up having population controls. Those of us living to day have to accept that life in the future has to be different from the lives that we have experienced.The rub is that we have to set the stage for the future. Will we make the future harder or easier. I vote for my plan to establish a global office, reduce the population and more easily feed fewer people for a very long time.

  • Steven Earl Salmony

    Abrupt climate disruption is being precipitated in our time by the overconsumption, overproduction and overpopulation activities of the human species that now cast a giant shadow over the surface of Earth and threaten future human well being and environmental health. We must share an adequate enough understanding about why the human population bomb is continuing to explode on our watch.

    The Growing Population Monster will continue to increase in size just as it always has from ancient times to the present day, until such time as the scientific community widely shares and consensually validates the apparently unforeseen, unfortunately not welcome, and unfalsified ecological science of human population dynamics. This research plainly and perhaps too simply explains why absolute human global population numbers are skyrocketing, despite declining total fertility rates in nation-states the world over.

    The secret heart of the Population Monster is discernible, but few people are ready, willing and able to see it, much less discuss the existential planetary emergency this growing monster has precipitated. The monster will not be slayed until the root cause of its patently unsustainable growth is acknowledged courageously, addressed sensibly and overcome humanely. For evidence of the cause of the ever-enlarging leviathan, please click on the following link,

    Comments from one and all are welcome. Thank you.

    Steven Earl Salmony, Ph.D., M.P.A.
    AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population
    established 2001
    Chapel Hill, NC

    • Steven Earl Salmony

      From the Nobel Peace Prize speech by Norman Borlaug….

      The Population Monster

      The Green Revolution has won a temporary success in man’s war against hunger and deprivation; it has given man a breathing space. If fully implemented, the revolution can provide sufficient food for sustenance during the next three decades. But the frightening power of human reproduction must also be curbed; otherwise the success of The Green Revolution will be ephemeral only.

      Most people still fail to comprehend the magnitude and menace of the “Population Monster.” In the beginning there were but two, Adam and Eve; when they appeared on this earth is still questionable. By the time of Christ world population had probably reached 250 million. But between then and now population has grown to 3.5 billion. Growth has been especially fast since the advent of modern medicine. If it continues to increase at the estimated present rate of two percent a year the world population will reach 6.5 billion by the year 2000. Currently, with each second, or tick of the clock, about 2.2 additional people are added to the world population. The rhythm of increase will accelerate to 2.7, 3.3, and 4.0 for each tick of the clock by 1980, 1990, and 2000, respectively, unless man becomes more realistic and preoccupied about this impending doom. The tic-toc of the clock will continually grow louder and more menacing each decade. Where will it all end?

      Malthus signaled the danger a century and a half ago. But he emphasized principally the danger that population would increase faster than food supplies. In his time he could not foresee the tremendous increase in man’s food production potential. Nor could he have foreseen the disturbing and destructive physical and mental consequences of the grotesque concentration of human beings into the poisoned and dangerous environment of pathological hypertrophied megalopoles. Can human beings endure the strain? Abnormal stresses and strains tend to accentuate man’s animal instincts and provoke irrational and socially disruptive behavior among the less-stable individuals in the maddening crowd.

      We must recognize the fact that adequate food is only the first requisite for life. For a decent and humane life we must also provide an opportunity for good education, remunerative employment, comfortable housing, good clothing, and effective and compassionate medical care. Unless we can do this, man may degenerate sooner from environmental diseases than from hunger.

      And yet, I am optimistic for the future of mankind; for in all biological populations there are innate devices to adjust population growth to the carrying capacity of the environment. Undoubtedly, some such device exists in man, presumably Homo sapiens, but so far it has not asserted itself to bring into balance population growth and the carrying capacity of the environment on a worldwide scale. It would be disastrous for the species to continue to increase our human numbers madly until such innate devices take over. It is a test of the validity of sapiens as a species epithet.

      Since man is potentially a rational being, however, I am confident that within the next two decades he will recognize the self-destructive course he steers along the road of irresponsible population growth and will adjust the growth rate to levels which will permit a decent standard of living for all mankind. If man is wise enough to make this decision and if all nations abandon their idolatry of Ares, Mars, and Thor, then Mankind itself should be the recipient of a Nobel Peace Prize, which is “to be awarded to the person who has done most to promote brotherhood among the nations.”

      Then, by developing and applying the scientific and technological skills of the 20th century for the well being of mankind throughout the world he may still see Isaiah’s prophesies come true: “. . . And the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose. . . And the parched ground shall become a pool, and the thirsty land springs of water.” (Isaiah 35:1,7.)
      And may these words come true!

      • Steven Earl Salmony

        As noted in his remarks, at the time Norman Borlaug gave his speech in 1970 the world we inhabit was populated by 3.5 billion human beings. Now absolute global human population numbers are 7.7 billion….and growing fast. We have not yet fulfilled Borlaug’s confidence in human sapience by recognizing why and precisely how a sapient creature of Earth like Homo sapiens sapiens has grown into the soon to become patently unsustainable monster it is today.

  • Greeley Miklashek

    I have conclusions to offer: too many humans using too many natural resources and producing too much pollution and heat. The UN says we have right now 27,000,000 homeless migrants afoot in the world already and their desperate search for a new home is destabilizing much of the developed world, thus the Great Wall of the United States.
    “But we are so distracted”…by all the consequences of overpopulation that we fail to see the nose on our face.

    Nice metaphor, I guess, “bandwidth”, but what’s your point? We are 3,000 times the population of our ancestral Hunter-gatherers at the beginning of the agricultural revolution. Americans use 165 times the resources of an Ethiopian and produce an equal proportion of the pollution. Ironically, our American population is 165 times as big as the Native Americans were when our ancestral European and African migrants fleeing an overpopulated Europe and sold off as slaves from an overpopulated Africa stepped ashore and laid claim to someone else’s home. How’s that for “human terms”? Stress R Us

  • Geoffrey Holland

    No easy answer for this problem. A planetary scale strategy is needed. That requires cooperation, compassion, and consensus when little or none exists. So many refugees now. It will become much worse as time goes on. Indifference is not acceptable.