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Climate migration and urbanisation: possible scenarios for urgent environmental concerns

17 June 2011

Climate induced migration. Photo credits: http://knowledge.allianz.com/

Hervé Pierre Guillot SJ

In its June 2011 issue, Etudes, “magazine de culture contemporaine” published by the French Province of the Society of Jesus since 1856, gives an insight into two major issues directly linked with environmental concerns: climate migration and urbanisation. Both issues are considered less in an alarmist than in a positive perspective, provided that there is sufficient and adequate political commitment. Another recent article published in May 2011 in the National Geographic Magazine illustrates both issues, no longer as prediction, but as present reality.

Migration patterns. Photo credits: http://supporters.footprintfriends.com/

The first article deals with a likely consequence of rising sea levels following global warming: climate migration. More precisely the article looks at migratory scenarios in a world where global temperature would rise by 4°C, a perspective that is more and more probable in the absence of any tangible sign of carbon emission reduction: levels are not falling inspite of commitments made by many, but still not all, countries. The author, François Gemenne, argues that there is no simple causal effect between rising temperatures and migration flows, but a highly complex interdependence between three mutually competing movements: on the one hand, an increase in migration flows; on the other hand (and this is less intuitive but can be factually substantiated) a decrease in migration flows; finally, a decrease in international migration but an increase in the internal displacements of population. Even though “prediction is very difficult, especially about the future” (Niels Bohr), the author believes that not only the amplitude but also the nature of migratory patterns may be influenced by such a situation. Against this background, instead of looking at migration as a security or humanitarian issue, the author invites politicians to give further consideration to a widely overlooked factor, the capacity of adaptation, and to incorporate this into new policy in order to help the society confront and manage the impact of environmental change on population movements.

The second article deals with another type of population displacement and another challenge to the environment: for the first time in human history, in 2008, more people were living in urban areas than in rural areas. Interestingly enough, the article starts with the same statement as the one found in the previous article: the future cannot be foreseen, but it can be prepared. The author of this article, Julien Damon, explicitly chooses to look at the phenomenon of urbanisation from a positive perspective (the “radiant city”), rather than a pessimistic one (the “monstrous city”), even though he acknowledges that both are present and can be reasonably argued. The last part of the article looks in more detail at the environmental challenges posed by urbanisation. It strongly suggests that one should no longer contrast cities and nature, but, on the contrary, should think in terms of “urban ecology,” calling for more political efforts to be deployed in order to create and nurture a still-to-be built “symbiosis” between urban areas and the environment.

Bangladesh flood risk map. Photo credits: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/

Both articles, each from its own perspective, give a challenging insight into two crucial environmental issues, which are actually both linked with demography. This year the world population will pass the seven billion mark. The National Geographic Magazine took this topic as a golden thread for a series of monthly articles published this year. In the May 2011 issue, an article dealing with the situation in Bangladesh deals less with future scenarios than with a real case occurring today: the impact of climate change and rising sea level on internal migration and on swelling cities in an already over-densely populated country. This last article provides the reader with a thought-provoking illustration of what the future might be like, and raises the stake for urgent political commitments and resolute implementation.

The author is a team member of the Jesuit European Office (OCIPE) in Brussels.

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