How Climate Change Truly Tests Human Resilience Is By Pitting Middle Earth Against the Poles
Wednesday, March 2, 2016 at 3:56PM
Thomas P.M. Barnett in Citation Post, gglobal trends, global warming, resilience

YES, IT IS COMPLETELY UNFAIR THAT THE INDUSTRIAL NORTH, WHICH IS MOST RESPONSIBLE FOR GLOBAL WARMING, WILL RECEIVE MOST OF ITS BENEFITS, WHILE THE SOUTH, EAGER NOW TO ACHIEVE SIMILAR LEVELS OF ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT, WILL BE MOST HAMPERED BY CLIMATE CHANGE. And yes, this disparity will cause a great deal of political-military tension between that equatorially-centric band and the rest of humanity. We see an early version of this already in the migratory flows from central and north Africa, across the Mediterranean, into Europe. You may think it's all about civil strife in Libya and Syria, and there's plenty of that, but the consistent, long-term pressure of bodies heading north is more about climate-change-fueled desertification than anything else, reflecting the fact that it's growing harder to live in those regions.

A big part of why it's harder for humans to live in those central regions of the globe is that climate change is slowly draining them of resources, something we've noted for years in the poleward and upward (in elevation) movement of plants and animals, a dynamic that has recently been studied in a comprehensive manner (as described in a recent Newsweek posting):

As the planet warms, plants, trees, fish and other natural resources are on the move, shifting toward the poles, in the direction of higher elevations and deeper into the seas, states a paper published February 24 in the journal Nature Climate Change. This natural capital has economic value, especially in developing countries where it accounts for a large share of resources. The team of researchers led by Eli Fenichel, an assistant professor at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, say that where the fish migrate, money will follow, but that it’s not as simple as this.

The findings suggest that it’s not enough for policymakers to look for biophysical changes, such as the increase of fish in one place and the decrease in another, to see how wealth is shifting in response to climate change, but that they should also take “inclusive wealth” into consideration. Inclusive wealth is an economic framework that accounts for the sum of traditional, human and natural capital, in an effort to measure a country’s ability to sustain human well-being. Wealth that is stable or which increases over time indicates overall sustainability. The framework can be applied to track the broader impacts of climate change on local and global sustainability: When natural capital shifts due to climate change—either toward the poles or toward the mountains—its value changes in response to new pricing that takes into account these social considerations in addition to the biophysical change alone.

The study, worth reading, employs scenarios to illustrate climate change's winners and losers, positing two fishing communities in the north (winner) and south (loser). The point was to examine the socio-economic changes in human behavior that arise from this pronounced resource shift:

“People are mostly focused on the physical reallocation of these assets, but I don’t think we’ve really started thinking enough about how climate change can reallocate wealth and influence the prices of those assets,” says Fenichel. The study uses fish as an example, but natural capital can include plants, trees, and other assets valuable to humans.

“We don’t know how this will unfold, but we do know there will be price effects. It’s just Economics 101—prices reflect quantity and scarcity and natural capital is hard for people to move,” Fenichel says. “It’s as inevitable as the movement of these fish species.”

“To be clear, the ‘gainers’ here are clearly better off,” he says. “They’re just not more better off than the losers are worse off. The losers are losing much more than the gainers are gaining. And when that happens, it’s not an efficient reallocation of wealth.”

The study's primary author then takes a stab at analogizing the resulting political-military tension:

It’s sort of like taking a piece of birthday cake from one child and giving it to another child who already has cake, according to Fenichel. One child undoubtedly stands to benefit more. “But the kid who got the second piece of cake is going to be a lot less happier than the kid who lost their only piece of cake will be upset.”

That analysis reminds me of the Western academics who examined China's gender imbalance and immediately went to positing Chinese military aggression so as to burn off the excess males. Not only was it bad political-military analysis (modern warfare is no longer ground-troop centric, as it was in the past, so just loading up the military with extra bodies accomplishes nothing), it simply ignored the realities of modern life, which says males seeking spouses don't simply sit put, accepting their fate, but rather tend to do whatever it takes to find mates. With modern travel networks, this includes the "unthinkable" of going abroad and marrying non-Chinese, like we've long seen in other Asian societies suffering over-concentrations of males in various geographic pockets or age cohorts.

And guess what, the same thing will happen (as we're already seeing in Europe) with climate change. The people of Middle Earth won't simply tough it out forever. Instead, they'll head north and south . . . to where there's growing amounts of arable land freed up by climate change.

The good news is, an older North (and developed South) should logically welcome this influx of fertile youth, because that's how we'll keep our own populations from aging too rapidly in coming decades. Yes, there will be politicians who call for "walls." There are plenty of them in North America and Europe now, and frankly, Russia's renewed interest in the Middle East is largely driven by that fear of an influx of radicalized Muslims. But, rest assured, they're coming. Nature will drive them and the rest of us will simply have to accommodate them in one of the greatest political experiments in human history.



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