We need to prepare for mass climate migration

Writer Gaia Vince argues that UK politicians are still treating immigration as a political football—not an inevitable response to global warming

September 04, 2023
Gaia Vince. Image: John Gaffen / Alamy Stock Photo
Gaia Vince. Image: John Gaffen / Alamy Stock Photo

“Playground politics,” sighs Gaia Vince. The science journalist and author of Nomad Century is outraged—but unsurprised—by the UK government’s “stop the boats” campaign. When we speak, the Bibby Stockholm barge is being filled with asylum seekers, despite questions about its suitability, and Number 10 is apparently considering flying those it doesn’t want in the country to Ascension Island, if its Rwanda policy fails. Meanwhile, Lee Anderson, deputy chair of the Conservative party, has suggested asylum seekers refusing to be housed on the barge “fuck off back to France”. Vince, whose book advocates a pragmatic, organised and compassionate response to climate migration, is not short of adjectives to describe these methods. They are “unbelievable”, “depressing” and “unsustainable”, she says in only the first minute of our conversation.   

Published last summer and about to appear in paperback, Nomad Century argues that climate change will make large swathes of the planet uninhabitable, and that the only proper response is “a planned and deliberate migration of a kind humanity has never before undertaken.” The alternative, Vince writes, is “calamitous chaos” with “enormous loss of life, or terrible wars and misery, as the wealthy erect barriers against the poorest.”

“As the daughter and granddaughter of refugees and migrants,” Vince explains, “migration stories molded my childhood and I have always been drawn to people from other places.” Her research into environmental changes around the world in the last decade opened her eyes to the fact migration—“the most important adaptation for many millions of people” as the world heats up—is “rarely mentioned and seldom advocated”. Nomad Century aims to fill this gap.

Given the plethora of extreme weather events this summer, which have forced people the world over to leave their homes (albeit sometimes only temporarily), Vince’s forecast seems prescient and her ideas worthy of political interest. Instead, the UK and other European countries are initiating what she describes as “completely unsustainable” migration policies. 

“If we can’t manage this tiny trickle of mostly young people who could join the labour force, people who we need for our economy, there is no hope in hell of managing migration when it becomes a serious problem,” she says. She describes “concurrent, continual displacements” as the world warms, with countries unable to cope and people forced to cross borders to find safety. Given that the impacts of climate change seem to be at the higher end of what was expected, she warns that this future will become reality “quite soon”.

“We need to grasp the seriousness of the situation,” she says. “These are people’s real lives. This problem will not go away through sloganeering or engaging in petty politics.” She calls for “investment, planning, pragmatism” to properly manage migration—as well as a new narrative to replace today’s “hateful” one. Research makes it clear immigration “doesn’t damage the economy, raise unemployment or increase crime rates,” she emphasises.

In any case, she says, migration is happening “whether we like it or not. We can either deal with it in a sensible way or close our eyes and do nothing.” Ignorance, she suggests, is the UK government’s current choice—instead of proper policies, it is “responding in a way that drives division and maybe gets applause from a small pool of worshippers.” Since ideas such as flying people to Ascension Island are “ridiculous”, Vince wonders whether the government’s long-term plan might be similarly unthinkable. “Is that all 17-year-olds are conscripted into armies to fight these people on the borders?”

Vince accuses the UK government of being similarly absent on climate change. “Rishi Sunak is not acknowledging the urgency and severity of the climate crisis; instead he is responding to tabloid opinion pieces,” she comments, noting the prime minister’s recent support for motorists and approval of fossil fuel extraction licenses. “This is no way to lead a population of 60m people going into a decade where we need to completely transition our economy.”

“It is time to raise our heads, to think about our futures and what we really want and to start making that happen,” says Vince. This process should include discussions about adapting to climate change and the effects of extreme weather on large populations, especially those in the global south. She compares the lack of debate around these issues to fears in previous decades about “giving teenagers the herpes vaccine or sex education” and the idea they may be encouraged to “take part in all kinds of adult behaviour and get pregnant or have sex or something terrible like that.”

“It is ridiculous,” she says. “We need to talk about how to make a liveable world.”