Skip to main content
Scroll For More
listen   &   read

How Will Climate Migration Reshape Our World?


Climate change is a threat multiplier, so people are also suffering conflict, or poverty, or prejudice, or discrimination, and climate change is adding to all of these threats and making people move. 

Gaia Vince

Floods, fires, drought and disasters are already displacing more people globally than conflict.

The climate emergency is destroying crops, homes and infrastructure and as the world heats over the coming decades whole cities may become unliveable, forcing populations to move in their tens of millions. How can we manage this unprecedented human movement to achieve productive, sustainable societies this century?

Proposals range from the already real to the politically radical – such as global free movement, caretaker states, repurposed cities, and migration authorities with real power. Will we choose to invest in productive, pragmatic plans for the coming climate and demographic changes, or find ourselves forced to improvise in an acute crisis?

Hear from award-winning science writer and the author of Nomad Century: How Climate Migration Will Reshape Our World Gaia Vince, for a keynote talk followed by a conversation with Guardian Australia’s immigration reporter Ben Doherty, and Director of the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law Jane McAdam, about how climate migration will reshape our world.

Presented by the UNSW Centre for ideas and supported by the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law and Adelaide Writers’ Week.


UNSW Centre for Ideas: Welcome to the UNSW Centre for Ideas podcast – a place to hear ideas from the world's leading thinkers and UNSW Sydney's brightest minds. The talk you are about to hear, How Will Climate Migration Reshape Our World? features award-winning science writer Gaia Vince, Guardian Australia’s reporter Ben Doherty, and Director of the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law, Jane McAdam and was recorded live. We hope you enjoy the talk. 

Ben Doherty: People move. Any history of humanity, however far back into the past that is taken is a history of migration. Since the earliest movement of Homo erectus out of Africa, humankind has found reasons for and ways to move from one place to another. Sometimes that movement is gradual, orderly and peaceful but just as often – it is a harried, desperate and violent exodus of large numbers of people fleeing persecution, fleeing war, famine or natural disaster. Throughout history, communities, polities, and civilisations have been destroyed and supplanted, enriched and enlivened by inflows of people from foreign cultures and new ethnic groups.  
And today, we stand on the precipice of a new era of global movement – an era that has already begun but will continue to accelerate and will become one of the defining meta trends of our century – the mass movement of people displaced by a changing climate. As Gaia Vince wrote, in the pages of The Guardian, “a great upheaval is coming – climate driven movement of people is adding to a massive migration already underway to the world's cities. The number of migrants has doubled globally over the past decade, and the issue of what to do about rapidly increasing populations of displaced people will only become greater and more urgent. To survive climate breakdown will require a planned and deliberate migration of a kind humanity has never before undertaken”. 

Good evening and welcome to tonight's event, How Will Climate Migration Reshape Our World?. My name is Ben Doherty. I'm a journalist on The Guardian newspaper. And I would firstly like to acknowledge the Bidjigal people of the Eora nation, the traditional custodians of this land. I pay my respects to their elder’s both past and present, and to other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders here with us this evening. 

As we speak tonight about the impact of anthropogenic climate change, the product of the last 250 odd years of human activity on our world, we can be mindful that Indigenous Australians have cared for, nurtured and nourished this land for tens of thousands of years, many hundreds of generations. 

Tonight, we have the privilege of welcoming Gaia Vince to Sydney and to UNSW – to speak about the issues raised in her latest book, Nomad Century: How to Survive the Climate Upheaval. Gaia is a science writer and broadcaster exploring the interplay between human systems and the planetary environment. She is an honorary senior research fellow at the Anthropocene Institute at UCL. Her first book, Adventures in the Anthropocene won the Royal Society Science Book of the Year Prize and we will be joined, also on stage by a face familiar to many in this room – Dr Jane McAdam, Director of the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law here at UNSW. Jane is a fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia and a fellow of the Australian Academy of Law. She publishes widely in International Refugee Law and forced migration, with a particular focus on climate change, disasters and displacement.  

Last year, Jane led the drafting of the Pacific Regional framework on disaster mobility, a world first instrument currently being deliberated by Pacific governments. Tonight, we will hear from Gaia and following her address, there will be a discussion between Gaia and Jane and myself. Gaia Vince writes in Nomad Century, “people are moving, ready or not. We can and must prepare”. But Gaia’s message is not an alarmist nor an apocalyptic one. She writes to, “migration will save us because it's migration that's made us who we are”. Ladies and gentlemen – Gaia Vince. 
Gaia Vince: Thanks Ben. Lovely to be here in Sydney, back in Sydney, I should say. And I come back during a heatwave in the city – very, very hot. On Monday, I think firefighters were tackling 40 blazes at once. Further north in the Northern Territory, in Northern Queensland, there are floods – it’s pretty chaotic. And while I’m here, I’m getting messages, photos sent from London, where I live from my family where London is covered in snow in March.  

So, climate chaos – everywhere. And I’m going to talk a little bit about that because we’ve just started 2023. But of course, we’ve experienced 2022 last year. This may look familiar to you – wildfires breaking out on the side of the road. On the side, looks like Australia.  

This is England. Last year in July, I had to take my kids out of school because the temperatures were in the mid-40s, and London is not adapted to this climate. The infrastructure and the buildings are adapted to keep people warm, to keep the heat in, not to keep the heat out. We're not adapted to Anthropocene conditions that we were facing and of course, it wasn't just England that broke all temperature records. Europe, there were thousands who died because of the high temperatures or because of wildfires, all across Europe. Tens of thousands, if not more, in fact hundreds of thousands – had to be displaced, had to be evacuated across Europe. I was in France.  

Drought reservoirs in the US completely drying up. At the same time, the West Coast was on fire –people, friends of mine living in various places couldn’t open their windows to ventilate in the time of COVID-19 because there was too much smoke, which is of course, another health hazard in the Midwest. People being rescued from floods, you know, in Kentucky by helicopters. Cattle were dying because of drought. South Asia – India and Pakistan endured months and months of unbearable heat, only to be hit then with floods. 33 million people were evacuated, were displaced in Pakistan in just two weeks. Bangladesh people being rescued from rooftops. Hurricanes, while very, very extreme storms – this is in the US, I think this is Hurricane Ian. Just devastating landscapes.  

Recognise this? This is Australia. Bushfires again. This was the year after the ‘black summer’ actually. This is Lismore, where my aunty Margie lives. She sent me a picture, actually of her – the Town Hall floating down the river and she’s in her seventies, she was helping. First of all, she was helping evacuate people from bushfires and she was helping bring water, then she was helping people who were displaced from their homes and rebuilding these kind of kit houses for displaced people. ‘Climate migrants’ is what we call them in the developing world. It's what they are.  

Right, so that kind of horrific montage that I’ve just sort of described, so every single continent – there is nowhere on Earth, that is being unaffected by climate change at the moment from the Arctic to New Zealand, everywhere is experiencing it, whether it’s food shortages, hunger from Mali, all the way to Sudan – whether it’s floods, wildfires – what I call the four horsemen of the Anthropocene, these very strong events which make the world unlivable for people.  

Fire, flood, intense heat, and drought. They make it difficult for people to live, and they are growing of course. Everywhere we look and this world, this world of intense danger – you know, have a look because that’s our world at 1.2 degrees and it’s only going to get more dangerous for us because the temperate is only going to rise. So, events like what I’ve just shown will become more frequent and more severe and they are threatening people so this is something I wanted to look at and I wanted to be pragmatic. I didn't want to hide. I wanted to say, what can we do about it? 

Well, the survival adaptation that we’ve always had throughout our history – as Ben mentioned earlier – is migration. It’s not just unique to us. It is what all life does. When it faces environmental difficulty, they migrate to safety, and we are no different. We need to use our ancient survival technique and what I am proposing in Nomad Century is manage mass migration on an unprecedented scale and this is pretty extreme, and you may be skeptical so I will explain a little bit about why it’s needed here. So yeah, the problem is climate change.  

So carbon dioxide – greenhouse gases; what they do is they trap the sun's energy and it's like extra energy, which is driving these more severe storms, ice melt, coastal erosion, all of the weather abnormalities that we're facing. 

So this is where we are at – somewhere between 1.2 and 1.3 degrees, above the pre-industrial average at the moment, facing these repeated climate impacts. So, you know, we’ve heard a lot of talk staying, you know, staying below 1.5. Well, we’re likely to exceed 1.5 as an aberration later this year and that’s driven largely by the volcanic eruption in Toba, which injected so much water vapour, which is another greenhouse gas into the atmosphere that it’s going to temporarily heat it but we will drop, but within the next sort of six years, we’re very likely to exceed 1.5 degrees and then we’re only going to go up. So there are different pathways that climate scientists use – economic pathways, in terms of what our carbon dioxide emissions are and so the pathway, that would be wonderful, if we could follow it and keep to 2.2 – below 2 degrees, which is RCP 2. Well, we’re nowhere near following that at the moment, we’d need to decarbonise much, much faster than we are doing so we’re way off that.  

But the good news is, we’re also not anymore following this RCP. This business as usual – you may have heard of it described as the 8.5 pathway, which has got some really horrific consequences, so that’s the good news, we’re somewhere between RCP 6 and RCP 4.5 at the moment, you know, we could be anywhere between this. This is the umbrella sort of likelihood where we end up at the end of the century, so what we do really is we exceed the temperature and then we come down to that anyway, so we could easily hit by the end of the century, somewhere between 3 and 4 degrees and above the pre-Industrial average. And that's, that's really frightening and a lot of scientists think that we are very likely to hit that. 

So what does that mean for our world? Well, this is the world at four degrees and what we can see is we risk multiple different impacts and if you look at that, you can see that most of the impacts are sort of concentrated around this tropical belt and they go down, so you know, Australia is not looking too hot. Tasmania is much safer, New Zealand, of course. And these are multiple impacts so what we’re experiencing now is not just an increase in the number of severe impacts but we’re having these back-to-back impacts – so we’re seeing extreme drought, or heat followed and before communities can recover from that, they’re hit by another flash floods or violent storms, which then erode the soil or they erode houses, the basis for houses, and so on. So, it really matters the resilience of communities to respond and deal with these multiple impacts.  

So that’s at four degrees, so the severe impacts are drought, heat, and so at the moment if we look at our world, about one percent of the world surface is unlivable because of extreme heat. But when we move to about 2070, that figure goes up to about 20% – 20% of the surfaces will be unlivable due to heat and it’s mainly that tropical band and the tropical band is home to about a third of the world's population.  

We're currently at just around eight billion – just over eight billion people by mid-century, and further will go up to say somewhere between nine and 10 billion. So, a third of that are living in extremely dangerous zones. So, we're talking about three billion people and heat becomes especially hazardous when it’s combined with humidity, and that's because we're mammals and that means we need to maintain a certain body temperature and we do that through evaporative cooling, through sweating and then that cools, but if there's a lot of humidity in the air. Our sweat doesn’t evaporate and we die of heat exhaustion, and that’s what we see in places that are already unlivable. So, places like Dubai or Qatar where the conditions are too dangerous for people to work outside for long periods, their construction workers and farm labourers die of kidney failure and heat exhaustion. So, when heat and humidity are combined – that’s called the wet bulb temperature because it’s measured literally by you know, how much you can evaporate water.  

And the survivability limit for the wet bulb temperatures was thought to be about 35 degrees and these conditions were, until very recently found nowhere on Earth. Now, they’ve been found in places on Earth and actually, recent studies at the end of last year found that survivability limit is actually almost certainly, much, much lower. So, wet bulb temperatures of between 25 and 28 degrees can be completely lethal for people and if we look at some of the extreme heat waves that were experienced, say, I think 2003, there were about 30,000 people in Europe that died in the heatwave. And in 2010, in Russia, there was something like 55,000 people that died in a Russian heatwave, in neither of those occasions, did the wet bulb temperature exceed 28 degrees. So, it looks like that is very lethal for human health. So, this is just heat stress at two degrees above pre-industrial average. Remember, this is the kind of fairly safe temperature rise that we're hoping to keep below. We won't keep below that, unfortunately, unless we make some very large changes to our economies or use geoengineering technology. So, we're going to exceed this. And there again, you can see the regions that are dangerous, the regions that are effectively becoming unlivable. This is for degrees, again, as a reminder, so we're talking about billions of people having to move over the next century and people are not talking about this. This is a real, real issue.  

So, you know, I've spent most of my career talking about the need to mitigate. Initially, it was the need to mitigate so that we don't experience climate change in the future. Well, you know, turns out we're already experiencing climate change, so, we still need to mitigate – we still need to cut our emissions and the good news, again, is that we are on a very fast, exciting transition. I think we've probably passed a tipping point now in terms of renewable energy rollout. It's now cheaper to build a new solar or wind power station than it is to keep supplying an existing coal fire power station. It's very exciting. I think that tipping point has passed, so that rollout is going much, much faster than I could have possibly imagined, even five years ago, but it's still you know, three to five times too slow to do anything. The other thing that that we must acknowledge is the need to adapt, we need to completely change pretty much everything for the new conditions that we're living in because climate change really is – it's the fabric on which we build our lives. It's the fabric on which we build our infrastructure, how we farm, how we decide what we're going to eat, to wear. Our entire livelihoods are built on this climate that we have lived within and our culture has developed within over,in many cases, tens, if not hundreds of thousands of years. So, we're going to have to change all that.  

We're going to have to change our food systems, our energy systems, our infrastructure, how and where we live – everything, but what people are not talking about is that there are places where people will not be able to adapt, the conditions will be so severe people will not be able to adapt, they are going to have to move. So, you know, I spoke about Dubai earlier that is effectively an unlivable city and yet it can support a small, wealthy population that lives in an artificial climate. Essentially, they live in air-conditioned shopping malls, everything they need water, food, everything is brought into them and that functions – that works for them, you know, energy, everything is brought in and that is a small population. You know, again, if you are outside of that – if you are a construction worker or labourer of someone  who is working outside, you risk your life as we've seen. Unfortunately, a lot of migrant workers die building various projects. 
Now, this is Mumbai. It’s home to 22 million people – nine million of these people live in slum-housing. These are essentially concrete boxes with metal roofs. So, Mumbai is on the coast and is constantly getting inundated with various, various storms and that's only going to get worse. But it's also the slum houses are somewhere between six and 10 degrees hotter than the sort of city proper and so, some of these, you know, hotels and businesses have got air conditioning. You cannot adapt to these conditions by putting air conditioning units in every single one of these. it's just not feasible. 

People will still live in Mumbai, but not 22 million people or more, you know, this city is still growing because climate migrants are moving there from rural locations where they have had to move because of climate change. Where are they going to live? How are they going to live? These are some of the things that I tackle in my book and if I take you back to that map but it's quite clear, you know, if you zoom out, and you look at our world, where humans have dispersed over the last more than 100,000 years, across that planet from the Arctic, to the desert, to rainforests, to wetlands, to all of the incredible places – the different environmental niches of our planet, we live everywhere. And that's our great adaptive ability and we've done that through networking, we've done that through the network migrations of ourselves and our resources and it's made us the most successful species on Earth.  

But if you raise the temperature of that planet, and you make the middle bit unlivable – well, then you see where that little ape species needs to go, right? It needs to go to where the safe places are and that is mainly the far north, and that’s where cities will have to expand, and new cities will have to build. And yeah, it is my proposition that we start talking about this and we start planning and I’ll say one thing before I move on to the conversation, and that is – migration is not a security issue. It is an economic issue and of course, a humanitarian issue, and I think we need to start framing it as that, and perhaps that will play in your mind a little bit as we have our discussion.  

Thank you very much for listening. 

Ben Doherty: Thank you very much Gaia for that illuminating talk, but alarming in lots of cases. That montage would you say, that sort of horrific montage, is the reality of the world we’re living in today, as a sort of forecast of the world we’re going to live in.  

Reading your book – one of the fundamental threads that feels like it’s running though this book is – and through the address now, is that migration is a natural human activity. It’s not something aberrant. It’s not something abnormal, but it’s inherent and intrinsic to humanity. And it feels like, what you’re arguing for beyond the sort of technical measures that we’ll get to, about how manage this migration, but it’s a philosophical shift in how we view migration. Yet, we in the US and India, we have governments building walls to keep people out. We have a UK Government yesterday, saying promising to stop the boats, which is a slogan that people in this room might be familiar with. How do we shift those attitudes? These are all ideas around stopping people moving. How do we change that underlying fundamental philosophy?  

Gaia Vince: Yeah I mean, absolutely. You know, migration is part of who we are. We are all migrants. Who here lives in the house that they were born in? Does anybody live in the house that they were born in? It’s very unusual to do that these days. Most people – I can't see a single hand, is that right? Because we all move, we move to form new households, new families, we move for love, we move for curiosity, we move for education. We move because we're people and we move right? It's part of who we are. It's completely normal.  

It's the easiest trope in the world for a populist government to demonise a group and they will always choose a group that is easy to demonise. Whether it's poor people, black people, foreigners, people of a different religion, or ethnic group because it helps shore up their popularity. And we can see that for what it is but even in this time of populist leaders, even these populist leaders who are spouting this, you know, with one hand with the other, they're bringing in all kinds of plans because there are huge labour shortages.  

There's a massive demographic crisis occurring across the northern hemisphere and in many countries, even in the developing world, you know, we are not having enough babies to support an ageing population. The only way we can solve that is through immigration.  

So, you know, we're talking about stop the boats or whatever or Trump's wall building. Last year, the UK Government chartered airplanes to bring people from Romania and other places just to work as farm labourers. We have shortages in hospitality workers, nurses, teachers, dentists, doctors, truck drivers, you name it there and the same thing in the United States. Actually, Trump was doing exactly the same thing while he was building his wall, because the reality is, immigrants are economically extremely useful and valuable for economies – like cities would collapse, cities are built on migration.  

Ben Doherty: Jane, a lot of your work is around international refugee law, and I want to take you to a speech that the UN Secretary General gave last month. António Guterres said this – he spoke about a mass exodus of entire populations on a biblical scale – he said this, “that people’s human rights do not disappear because their homes do. Yes, this means international refugee law”, and my question is, is he right? Does it mean international refugee law? Is this not a significant part of this issue, that refugee is a term of art in international law and people who are displaced by rising sea levels, by a changing climate, by a drought or a famine? They don’t meet that definition, how do we get around that issue?  

Jane McAdam: Well, my response to the Secretary General, and he was the former UN High Commissioner for Refugees would be – yes, international refugee law is part of the answer. But it’s certainly, not the complete answer. And I think, for a start, most people who are moving in the context of climate change and disasters and I use the two together because climate change of course, as Gaia’s shown, amplifies disasters, the frequencies, severity and so on.  

People moving in that context are predominantly never crossing international borders, so we know and the figures are rough, because we haven’t had only proxy indicators – like a number of houses lost, a number of people in those homes as a general rule. But by and large, in the last decade, every year, there have been about two thirds to three quarters of people displaced internally because of disasters compared to conflict. And so, at last count that was around 24 million people in 2021. The thing to bear in mind though, is that many of those people are moving over very short distances because they’re often being evacuated to get out of harm's way and then the presumption – although doesn't always happen – is that they can go home. 

But it’s rare that people are being displaced directly across borders. Some people, of course – may be displaced internally – go home, be displaced again and eventually, try and move. And also, we don’t have visa categories. by and large, to count people who are crossing borders in this context. But I guess what that means is, first of all, international refugee law shouldn't be our starting point but in terms of its application, I think we've developed an understanding now that because movement here is always multi-causal – we need to understand people who have a well-founded fear of being persecuted, that risk may be amplified because of disasters or climate change.  

So for example, if you’re displaced in a cyclone and you are a woman who finds herself in an evacuation shelter and you are already facing severe discrimination, or withholding of resources, or whatever it might be, you may be further exposed to gender-based violence in that situation. Or you might be a humanitarian worker who is targeted for that work as expressing your political opinion, and you are persecuted by the government or someone else for that. Likewise, disasters really can have that interface with other social economic conflict that is going on. 
So what UNHCR – the UN refugee agency now says, is we’ve got to understand disasters in that broader context. So, people can be refugees whose predicament is made worse because of a disaster or climate impacts, and I'd also note that about 90% of the world's refugees are living in very climate vulnerable areas. So of course, you've got refugees who are trying to find safety, but who are placed at further risk. So, yes, refugee law is part of the answer, but it's not the whole answer. 

Ben Doherty: Gaia, one of the proposals that you discuss in the book is the idea of a multinational agency – a UN agency to control migration, and this agency would have sort of enforceable powers to say to countries, “you need to take this many people who are displaced”. Give us a sense of how that organisation would work, what would an agency like that look like? And, how?  
Gaia Vince: Yeah well, I mean what we’re facing is global in scale, like it really is affecting multiple countries and I agree with what Jane was saying – climate change is a threat multiplier, so people are also suffering conflict, or poverty, or prejudice, or discrimination, and climate change is kind of adding to all of these threats and making people move. So, you know, there are lots of different ways that we can manage this. But I think, because it’s global, we need to have that joined up leadership because climate change itself, is global. We need this UNCCC – you know, climate change convention and to have all of these different countries tocome together to make agreements and that’s been incredibly slow.  

And, one of the reasons we’re in this mess is – it’s been incredibly slow to get all of these different countries to agree but I do think that there is something really quite inspiring and unique about that process – about the cop process in that, no matter how powerful and big your country is, and no matter how small and tiny your little you know, Pacific Island State is, everybody has a seat at that table and that’s quite remarkable. And we are starting to move, you know, I’m getting hope that we’re starting to recognise that international agreements do need to be made on the… you know, the last COP in November, there was an agreement that rich states should pay for the losses and damages experienced by the poor states – you know this is, this is quite an incredible movement.  

I mean I know it’s taken a long time and it’s not nearly enough and it’s all been very slow but I think that it’s an augur of something bigger. I think that there is a recognition that this is extremely, globally unfair. The share of the burden and the share of you know, the people living in that equatorial zone, that tropical zone are experiencing the greatest impacts – they’re also the poorest and historically, you know, their ancestors have not produced the emissions that have caused this problem. There are all sorts of inequities all baked into this and there is a beginning of a recognition of that. 

So, the UN of course, has huge number of faults but in the short time we have to start managing this, I don’t think we have time to come up with entirely new kind of governance systems and so on. I think we have to sort of start working a bit with what we have and I think that some sort of international migration body as part of the UN that did have teeth and was able to – perhaps work with a quota system and there are all sorts of different ways in which this can be managed.  

But really, we need to start thinking about population scale movement to safer places and we need to start thinking about all the possibilities, you know, the future is not written, we still have so many choices. But we're not having the level of conversation we need to have publicly, there is no kind of leadership at the moment and that needs to change.  

Ben Doherty: I'm going to play devil's advocate here a little bit Jane. Gaia sees hope in the COPs, we live in a post-Westphalian world, you know, the nation state feels pretty secure to me. Is it realistic to talk about these kinds of global structures? Do you think our country is rich and poor going to, to buy into some sort of international order that can control migration in this way?  

Jane McAdam: As much as I'd like to think they would, I think recent evidence would suggest that they're not willing to do that. Perhaps the best examples of that are back in 2018, when the world's governments came together to look at creating the Global Compact on Refugees and the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. What they wanted to do is in that title, and what was very clear was that while there is some appetite to make political promises – there is no appetite to create binding legal obligations beyond those that governments have already committed themselves to. We only need to look at the Refugee Convention, which is one of the most widely ratified treaties in the world and the fact that we now have more refugees than at any time since that instrument was created. And a lack of solutions, a lack of willingness by governments to not only admit people in search of protection but nor do we see a willingness to expand resettlement places because of COVID, they dropped to record lows, and they haven't recovered back to what they were, so there's already dire need there with only one percent of the world's refugees ever likely to achieve a resettlement outcome.  

I just don't think that governments want to say, “alright, let's add additional groups of people in here”. But that's not to say that, you know, therefore, we give up. And I think that's where – over a decade ago – now, the Nansen initiative on disaster induced cross border displacement, was created as an inter-governmental initiative and its successor as the platform on disaster displacement and they have created or set out a toolkit that 190 or 109 states endorsed it, which says, obviously, we need mitigation. But we also need to have this toolkit of responses that operate all at the same time so that includes disaster risk reduction activities, climate adaptation that obviously needs to be funded – again, that's where the international community can step in and help. We need to address displacement where it occurs, much of which will be internal so that's about states ensuring that they are not just letting people live in highly precarious areas of land, that they are, you know, enforcing building codes, all these sorts of things that any country can do right now if they want to.  

But countries like Australia, in many countries, should also be expanding migration pathways and opportunities so that people who want to move have the opportunity to do so, and aren't forcibly stuck or trapped where they are and as a last resort usually – planned relocations is something that might be considered and I think in all of this, we have to put front and centre the voices of affected communities. If I look at the Pacific – which is the region where I've done most of my work – most people living in Pacific Island countries will say, “I don't want to leave my home, but I would like to have the opportunity to migrate perhaps in a circular fashion, in a temporary fashion. But know that long term, there are options for me if life does become untenable here”.  

And as part of this, I think we need to kind of question what it means to be habitable, question this notion of habitability because some Pacific Island countries were told a decade ago, “you won't be here in a decade,” and they absolutely are still here. And in fact, you know, are creating their own initiatives to try and support people to remain in place and so often this, you know, the sense of well… “How can you live in this place?” is countered by understandings of how you can harness the fragile environment that you're in, and in some places, create adaptation that makes that habitable draw on long term resources, but also see migration – as Gaia was saying – as a form of adaptation in and of itself. And, that's why I think, you know, that's where countries like Australia should be stepping up and I don't necessarily mean you need a special visa category for people displaced by climate impacts or something like that. It's about enhancing broader opportunities for education, for skilled work, for unskilled work, for family reunion and so on.  

Ben Doherty: Gaia, one of the other themes that came very strongly to me reading this book is, is one of this injustice, almost sort of planetary unfairness… the global south, poor countries have contributed the least to climate change but they’re bearing the impacts more than any other countries, and they’re also the least able to respond, to mitigate or to adapt. And further compounding that, the fact that there’s this global inequity about people’s ability and right to move and I’m going to quote you to yourself, “we're now nearly eight billion people locked into a geographical position on this planet by chance of birth, passports and privileges are bestowed or inherited unequally, enabling some people to explore our planet unhindered, whereas others are trapped. Wall building and demonisation of migrations results in death, slavery and hate crime but it does not prevent migration. People will continue to move and we should, migration is inevitable. People have no choice, it must be facilitate”. So how then, do we make migration fairer? 

Gaia Vince: There are so many options to all of this, and I agree with a lot of what Jane is saying. Of course, the more adaptation people do, the longer people can stay. But we are talking about a shift change and we’re not talking about an incremental change in, you know, the severity of the number of disasters. This, we’re talking about crossing tipping points, essentially… 

Ben Doherty: Your argument – it's a sort of categorical difference that the movement of people we're going to see is categorically different to what we’re seeing before… 

Gaia Vince: Yeah, and people don’t want to move necessarily, of course not. And I'm very much in favour of migration, I think more people should move. More people should experience other cultures, other languages, foods, people, I think it's extremely enriching, and build bridges, and great friendships and, you know, everything.  

But the idea that people are forced to move because their homes and their lives are uninhabitable is you know, it is an absolute tragedy. And I've visited a lot of people who – they're in trauma, essentially, because they've had to leave ancestral homes, languages, nursery rhymes, their whole network, where they imagined that they were spending the rest of their lives and bringing up their children. It's really… we owe those people not just safe homes, but opportunities, purpose, the things that we want for ourselves. But these are also, you know, our future fellow citizens. They're the new Australians.  

So, Australia itself of course, is facing all sorts of problems. But Australia is much luckier, because Australia is richer and much more able to adapt so people will be able to stay longer than they will in other places. Yeah, so migration, for it to work, for migration to work in new cities, it needs investment, and it needs financial investment, ensuring that there is enough housing, there is enough access to health care, to education, to infrastructure, to all the things which a lot of states are not providing for their existing citizens. So, you know, if you don't provide it for the existing citizens, and then there's a new influx of people, of course, that brings conflict. But the other really key thing is social investment – you must invest in that whole changing idea of what it means to belong to a place and be a citizen – that genuine inclusivity.  

You know, Sweden has had a very generous immigration policy and accepted a lot of refugees, but it didn't do that, that very important social investment in inclusivity. So, there were Swedes that didn't think of the new migrants as Swedes, and they didn't think of themselves as Swedes. They were basically two separate societies, and that leads to all kinds of problems – black market economy is one thing, people are not part of the formal economy. It leads to resentment, conflict, rising crime, a rise in the far right. We can do a lot better than that.  

Until recently, states really wanted to increase the numbers. We had like the Ten Pound Pom scheme – people wanted more people. Canada has got a national project to triple its population in the coming decades. It wants to grow. Australia, I think currently is also on the growth path in terms of population. Other countries are less explicit about that, but they want they want immigration even if they're not explicitly saying it.  

Ben Doherty: And there is this synergy that is emerging in that you will have parts of the world where there are great mass of young people looking for employment, looking for opportunity and countries. Developed countries that are ageing that need a workforce, that have labour shortages… 

Gaia Vince: So, there is an absolute mismatch of opportunity of danger, of hope, of purpose. When you’re in your 20s, late teens, or early 20s, that’s a really, really good time to move – everybody’s moving, forming new networks, new relationships, they’re starting apprenticeships or education. That's a really good time for people to move and to different countries and form those networks and then help bring older family members out when that network has formed. You know, we're incredibly social creatures –we don't live in isolation, we live and do everything in social networks and allowing people to help themselves by forming those communities, forming those bonds that then… you know, people can then sort of yo-yo back and forth with personally and with remittances and so on. It's a much stronger way of building resilience to people in countries of origin that are in danger and forming those stronger communities in new cities, making that inclusive new city… 

Jane McAdam: Perhaps I could jump in on the back of that with a good, current example. The government here, has just created what’s called the Pacific Engagement Visa, the idea being to create three thousand permanent migration places for 18 to 45-year-olds from Pacific countries and East Timor, plus their family members to move to Australia, and it echoes a New Zealand scheme that’s been running for a number of years. 

Now, it’s not couched in terms of climate change or disasters or anything like that. But obviously, that's in the back of everybody's mind, and the good thing about a scheme like that is it provides opportunities for those who want to take them up – only three thousand but still, on a year-to-year basis – it's much better than nothing at all. And it also then complements existing temporary migration pathways that Australia has with the Pacific. 

And again, we only need to look back to the pandemic when our borders were closed to see just how reliant Australia is on Pacific workers and in fact, exceptions had to be created to bring people in from the Pacific to pick strawberries and mangoes, because we didn't have backpackers and Australians didn't want those jobs. So, you're absolutely right, that countries like this one have been built on the back of migration and continue to be enriched by migration. So, it's a matter of – how do we build on that and just as a side note, I was quite dismayed to see the opposition yesterday saying, ”oh, we don't like the idea of this Pacific Engagement Visa, because it will be run on a ballot system”. And they said, “we have a non-discriminatory policy and it's not fair to just have a ballot”. So I mean, again, that taps into ideas that I’ve heard when they were in, in government, the coalition saying, “we don’t like young Pacific people because they create gangs and cause crime”, and if we cannot start to undo those tropes that are based on very little evidence, then I worry – as Gaia was saying that – you know, we start to be our own worst enemies.  

Gaia Vince: Yeah so at the heart of all of this, of course, is the fact that we are going to see over the coming decades is brown people moving to more homogenous white areas, especially in Northern Europe. And that, at the heart of it, there is this kind of racist thread running through – which absolutely has to be tackled, you know, that is a fundamental part of the problem with dealing with all of this migration. This kind of unwritten, huge, kind of racist thread running through. I think it’s quite interesting that there was a really quick decision on from the EU member states to accept Ukrainian refugees, which undoubtedly saved millions of lives. I mean, it was a brilliant, brilliant, very fast move. I wouldn’t have believed it would have been that quick to offer Ukrainians citizenship.  

It was two years initially. I think it’s been… it will probably be extended – freedom of movement around the EU, access to health care, jobs, whatever for those two years. That’s completely brilliant. It was not extended to Afghan or Syrian refugees or other parts but it’s, you know, that’s a precedent that can be built on, and I think we should take the wins.  

Ben Doherty: Yeah, and those comparisons can be made quite clearly. The response to Ukrainian refugees, as to those fleeing Afghanistan at the fall of Kabul or the Rohingya exodus out of Myanmar. Indeed, the response from…  

Gaia Vince: And the White Australia Policy. You know, it's been abandoned for decades. But it… 

Ben Doherty: But it echoes. 
Gaia Vince: There are echoes.  

Ben Doherty: This is one of the questions that we've got here on this excellent app, Slido. Clint asks, do you think we'll see an explosion in reactionary and right-wing politics as a result of high climate migration? May this lead to sort of greater conflict?  

Gaia Vince: Yeah I do think that, and we’re already seeing it and there has been an absolute abdication of responsibility from left-wing and centrist leaders, pretty much globally to tackle this very toxic narrative around immigration and around refugees and migrations of any kind. It’s, you know, and António Guterres has shown real leadership on this, that has been sadly lacking… I mean, I come from obviously a country in a downward spiral of hell at the moment. So, you know, things are not great politically in the UK, shall we say, especially on this issue. But it's kind of worse than that there is this timidity from leaders to tackle this, to really broach this and what it needs is a really strong narrative to counter it.  

It really needs that – it needs visionary leadership and it needs a strong narrative to bring this. There needs to be a moral compass at the moment, certainly in my country and in several countries and Europe and beyond, the kind of moral leadership has been left to kind of religious groups or certain NGOs, but it’s not, you know, it should be the heart of civil society, it should be at the heart of government. You know, this is why people were lacking that there have been visionary leaders before, but there has been this kind of vacuum internationally. And it's a bad time, but we can do better. We really can.  

Jane McAdam: Yeah, I mean, I was heartened in 2021. The Biden administration.  

Gaia Vince: Yeah. So that's a good example of some sort of moral visionary.  

Jane McAdam: Yeah, that's right. He commissioned a report on climate migration and had a number of recommendations and you know, from the get-go dismissed the idea that somehow this is security threat. It should not be framed in the securitisation sort of discourse and said in many ways, it’s in the US as national interest, quite aside from, the humanitarian interest to ensure that people do have safe pathways to move and not returned, sent back to dangerous situations if a disaster occurs while they’re in the US, for instance. Now, there’s been very little concrete action taken so far.  

But if we reflect in Australia, on Australia’s context – it’s in our interest to see a stable, secure Pacific region and to that extent, we can help support financially though technical assistance but also through expanded migration opportunities because as I think you said, with one of the slides Gaia – you know, quite clearly I think it was the Mumbai one, that population cannot be sustained on that landmass but a smaller population potentially could be. And you know, in Bangladesh, when I visited slums there, I remember somebody saying, or an official Bangladeshi official saying to me, “you know, what will happen is like a domino effect”, so basically, people who are educated, have enough money, they will go… 

Gaia Vince: I mean, it’s already happening. Yeah. 

Jane McAdam: So the city’s population, yeah, may decline. But it won’t be those people living in slums who are going to start a new life in Canada, it will be the people who can take those opportunities. So you know, it’s how do we create more opportunities for everyone. But again, remembering migration is one piece of a puzzle that requires a whole lot of other interventions as well.  
Ben Doherty: I've got another question from the audience. David asks Gaia, can modelling – we’re talking about your tropical belt through the middle of the globe and those new regions that will become more viable as the climate changes – and David, can modelling accurately predict new areas of opportunity to capitalise on changing climatic conditions. For example, new farming land where there was previously arid or frigid conditions? Basically, I think he’s asking, do we know where those places are going?  

Gaia Vince: Yeah, and it’s already happening that you can actually see from satellite images, the greening of the Arctic. If you look at Scandinavia, their agricultural productivity has gone up – like huge, you know, by a factor. It’s really improving because they’re getting warmer temperatures, longer, growing seasons and they can grow more crops. Even in Greenland, they’re growing crops now. So, it is changing… It’s good and bad like some of these countries are sort of net winners, but there are obviously communities that are really, severely affected by melting permafrost, loss of way of life for Indigenous communities, particularly.   

But these countries, most of these countries first of all, the climate impacts are less, so they’re easier to deal with. The populations are generally smaller and they’re wealthier and have better governance in some cases, so they are better able to adapt but you know, this century is going to be huge upheaval, wherever. But I pinpoint in my book – various places that are kind of going to be winners from this, you know, some places if you look at Scotland, it’s still rebounding from the last ice age so in terms of sea level rise, that’s not a problem.  

And you know, energy costs are going to be less over winter because winters will be milder and benefit from that increased Arctic shipping and so on. So, there are opportunities as well but there are difficult times ahead. And that's why I think we really need to have conversations at a completely different level, not on this kind of incremental idea that things are going to change a little bit, and we need to prepare, we need to be much more visionary about this, we need to realise that things are changing on a huge scale. And when we talk about the future – it’s kind of dominated quite often by, by other creatives, by authors, writers, film directors, and so on. And it's driven by this very dystopian narrative because that's more dramatic and exciting.  

But I think it's a project where we all need to do is also try and imagine a better future like, what do you want from, you know, my kids are going to be around at the turn of the next century, you know –this is going to be their reality, what do you want for them, you know, I don't want my kids enlisted, conscripted into an army to fight people from Nigeria or Bangladesh or wherever, you know, I would much rather that they were living in, you know, denser cities that were sustainable, productive with opportunity – clean air, clean water, you know, with a Bangladeshi neighbour and a neighbour from Russia, you know, like, that's the future that I would much prefer for them.  

But really think about that future and then take the steps in your head – the pragmatic steps of how do we get there, then how do we achieve that? Because there are many different options, many different pathways, that we can lower the temperature, we can reduce our emissions, we can decide, you know, do we want to live in denser cities? Do we want to put a lot more energy into adapting existing places? Do we want to manage retreats? How will we compensate people for loss of land, you know, how will all these things work? Because we are not having conversations on those levels at all and we're not hearing it from leadership – the leaders are not being honest about exactly what we face with these with the climate threat, and what it will take to survive those threats, you know, what pathways, you know, what are the economic decisions that need to be made, or the infrastructure decisions or the structure or the social decisions or the migratory decisions – we're not having that debate. And I would much rather that it was a democratic decision that we all make, rather than what we're doing now, which is kind of careering from one disaster to another and just sort of managing each one in an ad-hoc fashion. It's not going to work as these decades go on at all.  

Ben Doherty: If we can imagine the dystopia, we can also imagine its opposite. 

Gaia Vince: We can imagine a better world. I mean, it’s not like what we have at the moment is so great, right? We have huge inequality, we have biodiversity crash, we have… In my country, water that is so disgusting, you can’t swim in it. We have air pollution that’s so gross that you can’t, you know, dry walk past queueing cars, you know, we can do better. There is better.  

Ben Doherty: Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve run a little bit over time. I apologise to those who haven’t been able to get their questions up, but Gaia will be around signing books over this way. Jane will be around to answer questions. You can even ask me a question if you want it, but I’d like you to put your hands together. Thanks Jane McAdam and Gaia Vince. Thank you.  

UNSW Centre for Ideas: Thanks for listening. This event is presented by the UNSW Centre for Ideas and supported by the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law and Adelaide Writers’ Week. For more information, visit and don’t forget to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.  

Gaia Vince

Gaia Vince

Gaia Vince is a science writer and broadcaster exploring the interplay between human systems and the planetary environment. She is an Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the Anthropocene Institute at UCL. Her first book, Adventures In The Anthropocene won the Royal Society Science Book of the Year Prize. Her latest book, Nomad Century: How To Survive The Climate Upheaval, explores global migration and planetary restoration in a radical call to arms.

Ben Doherty

Ben Doherty

Ben Doherty is immigration correspondent for The Guardian Australia, based in the Sydney newsroom. He was formerly the Bangkok-based Southeast Asia Correspondent for The Guardian, and South Asia Correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based in New Delhi. He has reported from more than 20 countries, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Zimbabwe, and throughout the Asia-Pacific. Ben has twice been awarded a Walkley Award, Australia's highest journalism honour, most recently in 2013 for a six-month investigation into sweatshop labour conditions and worker deaths in the Bangladeshi garment industry. He has written extensively on, and has a particular interest in, the issues of child and forced labour in developing economies, and the movement of refugees and forced migrants. Ben was the Walkley Young Australian Print Journalist of the Year in 2008 and has been a finalist in the United Nations Media Peace awards, and Amnesty International Media Awards. Ben holds a Master of International Law and International Relations from UNSW Sydney and he completed his Masters at Oxford with a thesis titled, Open Ocean: the politics of protection for climate migrants in the Pacific. 

For first access to upcoming events and new ideas

Explore past events