There is a lot of focus on the raw figures published today by Christian Aid in its report on projections of future human suffering resulting from social change in response to climate change and other factors. The low-graphic report can be read here.
The first thing to note is that most commentators have not referred to the largest and, to me, most unpalatable, causes of human displacement. A lot of emphasis is placed on the direct effects of drought, resource depletion and extreme weather events, sea level rise with its associated flooding, and, of course, food shortages.
On the other hand, little comment is made of the largest – by far the largest – cause of displacement; so-called ‘development displacement’. These are the unfortunate individuals who live in areas of economically strategic significance – places such as Sudan, where millions have been moved to allow for uninterrupted oil exploration, or Indonesia, where habitats such as rainforest are being removed for the development of palm-oil plantations, to service the increasing demand for biofuels, and large groups of people forcibly evacuated from land which they thought they owned.
Of the estimated one billion displaced people in 2050, 645 million are expected to be displaced by development, whilst climate changes are seen to be directly responsible for less than half that number.
In a sense, this report is no surprise; last year, the Hadley Centre produced an excellent scoping paper on developing countries and changing climates. The writing has been on the wall for some time.
But it is hard to separate out the direct climate impacts from the development impacts. Much of the development is taking place with climate change in mind, especially water and power schemes, land use changes and deforestation – most of the Amazon slash-and-burn is linked directly to soy bean farming, not only to provide cheap feed for beef production, but also to provide a source for ethanol, the current ‘favourite’ amongst petrol replacements.
Once again, we can see that it is not enough to look at the projected futures of the world in the light of one element or other of the system; the interconnectedness is becoming increasingly apparent. As the other major news item of the day – deforestation as a cause of global warming – should make readily apparent.
Looking for the solutions to future problems on a national or regional level is now too narrow-minded. We think we are ‘doing the right thing’ by changing our car from a petrol-driven to a biofuel motor, only to find that, as a consequence, irreplaceable rainforest is being cut down at an ever increasing rate. We support charities which are the absolute survival mechanism for millions of displaced, poverty-stricken, disease-ridden displaced people, only to find that this acts as a means for the countries which do the displacing to pass on responsibility for their own citizens. That such displacement is also often ethnic as well as economic should ring alarm bells throughout the world.
The two factors most likely to shape the next forty years are continuing climate change and global development, especially in the ‘developing nations’. The two are connected in many ways. It would be wrong to suggest that, therefore, developing nations should be restrained in their efforts to improve the wealth of their societies and the survival chances of the majority. Such efforts would, anyway, be in vain. As things stand, given the underlying economic model which drives investment, development and global economic growth as the only path for the best interest of the majority, this dilemma cannot be solved.
Some time ago, reading the various reports, projections and scenarios, an image came into my mind. It will not go away. This image is of an endless march, and endless stream of displaced people, forever deprived and needy, circling the Eurasian and African continents in a perpetual search for temporary respite. Unwanted by any one state (how could they cope), unstoppable by virtue of numbers, a hundred, two hundred million human beings on a pilgrimage to nowhere. A ragged column of bodies miles wide and hundreds of miles long, returning to a lifestyle of the hunter-gatherer, but this time, the hunt would be for any kind of sustenance, and the gathering would be of other people’s wealth, other people’s sustenance.
Yes, the consequences of climate change may well be severe. The consequences of climate change and development combined would multiply the severity many times over. We are standing at the crossroads. Perhaps the time has come to realise that the path onwards is not the way to a destination which we want to reach.