*** DEBUG END ***

A world on the move

25 November 2022

Migration must be part of the response to the climate crisis, Gaia Vince tells Susan Gray

Phil Fisk

Gaia Vince

Gaia Vince

FOR MANY British people, summer 2022 was when climate change became personal. Forty-degree heat, extreme weather health warnings, and advice not to travel transformed the climate crisis from abstract notion to lived event. Gaia Vince’s two Australian aunts had already lived through New South Wales’s black summers, where smoke from bushfires darkened the sky, with no visible sunrise or sunset; so London’s record-breaking heatwave may have been less of a surprise, but was still debilitating.

“My own family in Australia were dealing with horrific heatwaves, and then also uncontrolled fires and horrific floods. They’ve been evacuated several times. Here, in London, I couldn’t send my kids to primary school when we had the heatwave, because our infrastructure is not adapted for that kind of temperature.

“And it was dangerous. It was 46 degrees in Met Office weather stations, which are little boxes not in direct sunlight. But the reality is my nine-year-old son was in a classroom, in a roof space where the temperature would have been at least five to ten degrees hotter than this official temperature, and it’s not healthy.

“And they don’t have air conditioning because it’s not adapted to that kind of condition. So, I kept him home. Sports Day was cancelled, because it’s not safe to have young primary-school children running around in the full sun without shade in that heat when they’re not used to it. We’re all being affected everywhere on earth.”

Ms Vince likens the climate crisis to a camel with a broken back — removing the last straw will not make any difference. The damage is irreparable, and humanity has to adapt to the new situation. There is no way back to the old. The climate and seasonal changes our parents knew is gone.

“We are moving into a much less stable world. We’re reaching tipping points, which mean that you can’t just take that straw off again and everything’s all right. That back is broken. Now, we’ve moved to a different state. We need to talk about how we adapt pragmatically to this very changed world, and it will involve looking differently at our shared land across the globe.

“Some places are going to be safe, and some places just are not, and people are no longer able to survive there. We’re seeing already a shift in the habitability of zones of the planet that have been the most the most comfortable zones for humanity for tens of thousands of years.”

IN HER book Nomad Century, Ms Vince notes that London is forecast to have a climate similar to Barcelona by 2050, and Cardiff could be two-thirds under water if the Welsh capital does not improve its flood defences. “It’s sinking. So, if there are some plans to bolster defences with sea walls — which places in a similar situation are looking at — parts of Cardiff will definitely be able to adapt, because it’s relatively wealthy.

“But there are parts it’s just not going to make sense to adapt if it’s too low lying, too vulnerable to sea levels. People and business will have to move, and that will happen everywhere. Venice, sadly, is doomed.

“And look at Jakarta. It’s most populated part of that part of the world, and they’re moving the Indonesian capital to Borneo. Lots of our biggest cities around the world are suffering huge issues with sea-level rise, and with increasing storm surge.”

The recent storms in Miami, and the loss of life and devastation in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, showed how climate change is affecting rich nations as well as the developing world.

As climate change acts as a threat-multiplier in regions where life is precarious, as drought makes fertile land barren, and sea-level rises swamp islands, Ms Vince argues that migration would allow populations to rebuild their lives somewhere safe.

Florida’s second largest city, Miami, is a case study for the benefits of migration. It has already been the site of mass migration when, in 1980, the Cuban government permitted people who wished to leave the country to do so. In all, about 125,000 people emigrating there.

“Miami’s a good example, because it was a sort of random trial that wasn’t planned. There was nothing special about there, it just happened to be the nearest port. And people just arrived. Those migrants were very low-skilled manual labourers, people who didn’t speak English, and all arrived en masse. And, actually, it boosted the economy.

“The economies in cities where they stayed grew much greater relative to similar cities that didn’t have that migration. And this growth was sustained for decades after, which is not surprising to me at all. It’s a good counter to those arguments that lots of low-skilled people will drive down wages and raise unemployment.”

BRINGING the focus closer to home she continues: “If you look at the situation we’re in in the UK, now that people have left either because of Brexit or because our economy has tanked, we don’t have farm labourers or care-workers: we have huge vacancies in all sectors.

“Our economy is stagnating or going into recession, and a large part of that is because we don’t have enough labour. We couldn’t even truck goods across the country because we didn’t have enough truck drivers.”

The disparity between jobs described as “low-skilled” and their vital importance to everyday life casts further shade on tightly controlling immigration. “Of course, they’re not low-skilled. They have very useful skills for these particular places. Even if those skills can be acquired relatively quickly, we can’t replace them overnight. We rely on immigrant workforces.

“So, au pairs, for example, allow, in our patriarchal society, mainly women to be able to join the workforce again. It’s practically impossible to get an au pair for families now. These are all different grades of problem that come from the fact that we have these ridiculous border controls that stop people fulfilling existing requirements, and who would boost our economy.”

In her previous work Adventures in the Anthropocene, a winner of the Royal Society Winton Prize for science books, Ms Vince visited the Rohinga refugee camps in the Cox’s Bazar region of Bangladesh, showing how preventing refugees from working exacerbates problems for them and their new home nation.

“It is a moral argument. People get more than just economic advancement through their work: they get purpose and meaning from their lives. Being unable to work is bad for the host country, because you have to have money. People who can’t work create a black-market economy just to get by, which is in competition with the formal economy.

This works badly in every way, with migrants not paying taxes because they’re not legally working. There’s no advantage to not allowing people to work.”

MS VINCE contrasts forcing migrants and refugees underground to make a living with encouraging them into the formal economy. “When people can work, that actually enlarges the economy, it boosts productivity. This is an economic system, and systems have emergent properties. They’re greater than the sum of their parts.

“There isn’t a zero-sum game with work: ‘There are X number of jobs and if more people turn up, if migrants arrive, then there are not enough jobs for locals.’ It doesn’t work like that. The more people there are, the bigger the economy, because they come with their own needs and purchasing power. And they create their own jobs. But they also are employed. And, because they broaden the economy, it means more businesses are set up.”

Ms Vince says that migration can enhance the host community’s job prospects. “The bosses are generally the native population, because they have better connections, better language skills, and they are generally richer. So, it boosts everybody in so many different ways; it enlarges the economy. But it also allows migrants to help themselves, and help their children become active citizens in that country, [so that] they don’t feel resentful; they feel a part of — included in — the country, and that’s so important.”

European politicians who paint migrants as an alien culture are also misleading, as about half the world’s migrants are Christians. “I put that into Nomad Century to counter this narrative of huge prejudice against migrants and this fear of Muslims; to show that Muslims don’t make up the most migrants. If you’re very anti-Muslim, and that’s your reason for prejudice, it doesn’t work against migrants.

“People have all sorts of prejudices against migrants, which are based on misinformation, and a continual drip-drip narrative of hate, delivered by populist leaders. It’s a failure of our opposition leaders to grasp that, and counter it effectively. They assume that the public is as prejudiced as our leaders, but surveys show that’s just not true. We definitely need a much stronger narrative against that, because it’s very damaging for our societies.”

As the daughter of a child refugee from Hungary’s 1956 uprising, who was brought up in Australia and the UK, Ms Vince says that moving between countries in search of a better life is completely normal. “We all move. Very few of us live in the house that we were born in, which meant we’ve all had to leave at some point somewhere else, for whatever reason.”

Nomad Century: How to survive the climate upheaval by Gaia Vince is published by Penguin at £20 (CT Bookshop £18); 978-0-24152-231-8.

Gaia Vince is speaking at the Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature, 24-26 February, at the University of Winchester and Winchester Cathedral. Tickets available now.


Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times


To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)