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Energy is at the center of everything – including migration

Good Clean Energy is a podcast that tackles one of the most existential questions of our time: how to build a world with abundant, affordable, carbon-free electricity. TAE’s Jim McNiel dives into deep conversations with experts ranging from scientists to innovators to changemakers about the challenges our current electricity systems face and updates on the race for game-changing, clean ways to power our lives.

On this episode, Jim is joined by Gaia Vince, science journalist and author of Nomad Century: How To Survive The Climate Upheaval, to discuss her book and how climate change and energy will play a factor in mass migration to come.

Key Takeaways

  • People migrate for resources, including energy, and climate migration is already underway.
  • A third of the world’s population, which will be roughly 3 billion people, will have to migrate to more livable areas of the planet by 2070 due to extreme heat alone.
  • It is possible to create a future where people live in sustainable, diverse cities and parts of the world are restored to be made livable again.

Gaia Vince has a clear vision of the world she wants to create for her children.

“Do I want my kids conscripted into an army to fight fleeing Bangladeshis, fleeing Ecuadorians, fleeing people from Niger? Or would I much rather that they were living in expanded, denser, sustainable cities with a Bangladeshi neighbor or Ecuadorian neighbor?” she said. “Of course, I mean, it’s obvious to me what the choice is, and people will have to move to these livable parts of the planet.”

Vince, author of “Nomad Century: How To Survive The Climate Upheaval,” said climate migration is already underway. By 2070, 20% of the world’s land surface will be classed as unlivable due to extreme heat, Vince said, which will affect a third of Earth’s population.

“We are going to see hundreds of millions of people moving within decades, if not billions,” she said. “We are talking about mass migration.”

But that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Immigration has vastly positive effects on the economy. The United States, for example, is “not the richest nation in the world because of a few of the first settlers that came out there,” Vince noted. “It’s because of this huge migration of skills, of creativity, of labor, of just the sheer number of people.”

Now is the time to prepare for the coming mass climate migration, and that includes transitioning away from fossil fuels towards clean energy, Vince said.

“The transition will have to be made one way or another. Better to do it now.”

The following transcript has been edited for clarity.

[Phone call with Matt] We got over two feet, almost 26 inches in a 24-hour period, which is an all-time record.
What, two feet? Two feet of rain?
Over two feet.
Oh my God. Where did it go? I mean, did you guys get flooded?
We were OK, but down in Fort Lauderdale, they didn’t fare so well.
What happened to Ian?
Yeah. Well, his apartment got flooded, his car got flooded…

McNiel narration: That’s my brother Matt. He moved to Florida from California like 16 years ago to have an easier, quieter life. And he’s done quite well there. He likes it a lot. You know, it’s sunny. He goes scuba diving all the time, plays golf. He’s got a good thing going on, but it’s not working out well for him.

[Phone call: Matt] Well, you know, we’ve been here for a long time and just seeing this stuff get worse and worse and the storms get bigger and bigger. They’re calling this a thousand-year rain event, but that’s probably going to happen every year now. So, you know, it’s just time to move on.

McNiel: He’s gotta move. And you know, it’s not the first time McNiels have been on the move. In the 1780s, my family lived on the Isle of Barra in Scotland. It’s a little desolate place. There’s not a lot there. There’s an old castle on a rock called Kisimul Castle. To live there, you need to jump in your boat and go and steal cattle from the mainland just to get along, get some protein. So it’s understandable that the McNiels fled to the great New World in the late 1700s. Landed in New York, made their way to Wisconsin. My father, when he was two years old, was thrown in the back of a Cadillac touring car with his six siblings and parents and drove across America to go to California, young man. And that’s where I was born. And my brother and my sister, and we grew up in California. It was a great place. And I migrated from California at the end of the ’80s. We’re all migrants.

Today on Good Clean Energy, we have science journalist Gaia Vince. She wrote a book which I love called “Nomad Century.” And you may ask the question, “Why are we focusing on a book about migration when we’re talking about clean energy?” Because people migrate for resources, and one of those resources is energy. It’s the ability to be able to live and work and play and learn. And without access to the basic hierarchy of needs, people go into motion and that’s what’s going to happen as things heat up. So first we need to make sure things don’t heat up too much. Secondly, we need to know what to do when people go in motion. And Gaia has got some great ideas on how we as a society can cope with all of these changes. My name is McNiel, and this is Good Clean Energy.

McNiel: Gaia Vince, welcome to Good Clean Energy. So in your book “Nomad Century,” you basically write about the facts around climate change. You talk about a lot of the extreme weather events that are taking place. You describe what it means to be in extreme heat over periods of time and what that’s going to mean to the populations in tropic areas and desert areas. And this is going to lead to migration, and that we need to be prepared for it. And yet, there’s this resistance, even though we’re all migrants, even though the country I live in is — if you’re not an indigenous person, you’re definitely descended from a migrant.

“We are all migrants one way or another.”

Vince: It’s important to put that into time concepts. So, you know, in the United States, in Australia, in these countries, Canada, built on very recent immigration. We’re talking about either the current generation or within five generations you’ve migrated. We are all migrants one way or another.  We really do truly live everywhere. And you know, how do we do that? Well, we do it through our networks. We are this uniquely sociable species. And we’re not just sociable with our direct kin people; we cooperate with strangers. That has helped us, it has helped us to succeed. You know, we network.

It’s actually quite remarkable how little conflict there is between humans. How many negotiations we make to resolve things. We celebrate or commiserate over large battles, and these are a big feature of our history. But we have been relatively peaceful. So what we do with resources, instead of competing over them, quite often we trade. We trade between each other and that makes us all stronger. So we are now so networked globally that it’s kind of our interests, particularly at the moment when we face these global crises, whether it’s climate change or biodiversity loss or water shortages or whatever. We are facing these global crises, and we will only get through them if we cooperate together. You know, our needs and our desires are actually aligned. We all want a more livable planet in various ways. And if we’re not personally migrating, we are migrating our resources to us. You know, where I’m talking to you now, nothing I wear, eat, the equipment I’m talking to you on has come from this kind of square footage I’m standing on. Nothing, right? It’s all been brought to me, you know, whether it’s metals from the Congo in Africa, whether it’s the potatoes I had from lunch from Peru. Everything has come to me by tens of thousands of strangers all cooperating together through networks. They don’t know me. They don’t know what I want or what I’m gonna use any of these things for. And yet they have managed to produce the equipment and the food and everything to keep me alive and to keep my life so easy that I don’t need to migrate for food, and I don’t need to migrate for resources.

McNiel: So, you know, how do you educate people about the productivity and the positive economic impact of migration?

“If we’re not personally migrating, we are migrating our resources to us.”

Vince: Yeah. Well that’s the million dollar question, isn’t it? Migration is inevitable. It is already underway. Climate migration is already underway, in humans, but also in many other species, from plants to fish to birds, to even slow-moving animals. It’s underway away from the tropics and generally to the more livable parts of the far north. And, if we look at just one of the parameters that will drive migration over the coming century, which is extreme heat, just 1% of the world’s land surface is classed as unlivable due to extreme heat at the moment. By 2070, that’s going to go up to 20%.

McNeil: That’s crazy.

Vince: And that 20% is home to around a third of the population. So the human population is 8 billion at the moment. By 2070, it will be somewhere between nine and 10 billion. So we’re talking about 3 billion people living in unlivable conditions just because of heat. I mean, when we throw in things like drought, severe storms like coastal erosion, fire risk, all the other things that make it unlivable, we are talking about large numbers of people that are going to have to move.

What we’re expecting to see over the coming decades is a young, educated labor force essentially coming from Africa. And this African population is also going to be hit by the most severe impacts of climate change.

McNiel: I think at the end of the century, you’re talking about 25% of all the population is probably going to be from Africa.

Vince: They are entering the world and entering the workforce at a time and in a place where it will be unlivable. So, there is a solution. These people can move to places which will be desperate for labor. I mean, if you look at my country, but also the United States. So I’m from Britain and we have shortages in everything at the moment, partly because of Brexit, partly because of COVID. But we have shortages in the hospitality sector, in nurses, doctors, dentists, teachers, farm laborers, truck drivers — literally every single part of the economy has got shortages and it’s really affecting economic production. Businesses are crying out for more immigration. We need immigrants.

The economic impact of migration

McNiel: Talk about the positive part of this. I mean, you write about Cuba and Miami, and every American is aware that the greatest Cuban contribution to the United States is Desi Arnaz, because without Desi we wouldn’t have “I Love Lucy,” and, hey, it’s a great national treasure.

Vince: Please sing a little bit of…

McNiel: A little “Babalu?” Yeah, I think we’ll have to put that off another episode. I don’t have my bongos nearby. If you could talk about the economic impact that the Cuban diaspora had on Miami. I think you write about that at length, right?

Vince: Yeah, so there are many, many studies now that show the economic value of immigration. In fact, some economists believe that if we were to tear down borders completely and let anyone move wherever they wanted, the increase in GDP, it would at least double, if not treble global GDP straight away, because basically people move to work and they move to where the work is. So if there is work available, that’s where they’re going to move to. They don’t want to move somewhere there isn’t work, because that doesn’t help anybody. But they also broaden the economy. They increase it. So, we hear all sorts of scare stories from anti-migrant governments such as immigration lowers wages. It doesn’t, it does the opposite. That immigration raises unemployment. The opposite, again, is true because the economy is not a zero-sum game. There aren’t “x” number of jobs and if more people turn up, that means there’ll be fewer jobs for the native or existing population. It’s just simply not true.

McNiel: The more immigrants that come and start a Cuban sandwich shop are going to hire locals to work at that shop, and they’re going to have trade, and they’re going to buy product, and they’re going to sell product.

Vince: And when the immigrants come, they have their own needs. They need their hair cut, they need their teeth seen to. So they broaden the economy, the economy grows with immigration. But it does need to be done well and handled carefully. Like what we’re talking about is not the types of immigration levels that we see today, which are actually, even though they’re described as a massive crisis, they’re very, very far from a massive crisis. They’re small trickles at the moment. We are going to see hundreds of millions of people moving within decades, if not billions. We are talking about mass migration.

“We are going to see hundreds of millions of people moving within decades, if not billions. We are talking about mass migration.”

McNiel: Did you look at the influx of people in the United States after the Second World War or during the Second World War?

Vince: Yeah. So that was mass migration. That was huge numbers of people. Really what built the American Dream. It’s not the richest nation in the world because of a few of the first settlers that came out there. It’s because of this huge migration of skills, of creativity, of labor, of just the sheer number of people.

McNiel: And recently we have two entrepreneurs in this country that created a little company called Google. One was from Russia, the other one was from South Africa: Sergey Brin and Larry Page.

“We create through synergy, and that is the secret to our success really.”

Vince: Indeed. I mean, if you look, the whole of Silicon Valley basically is run by immigrants. Cities are the most productive places on earth for human productivity. It’s where all of our innovations, our creativity, it’s where the patent numbers are the highest. It’s where universities are. Cities are entirely built on immigration. And it’s that bringing together of people from different perspectives, cultures, ideas all together. And then some things are invented straight off out of inspiration, but most things are a fusion of two different ideas that come together and are batted off by a third person who then thinks. We create through synergy and that is the secret to our success really.

The economic impact of doing nothing about climate change

McNiel: In your book you write about the basic principles of climate change, which is we’re pushing too much carbon into the atmosphere. The majority of carbon comes from the burning of fossil fuels, roughly 80% of the carbon that goes into the atmosphere. Most of that comes from energy and transportation. And so we need to figure out how to replace energy from fossil fuels with something that’s renewable.

And the thing I think is really important is that the conservative side of the conversation needs to appreciate the economic impact of doing nothing. You know, billions and billions of dollars that we as a nation in the United States lose every year because of hurricanes, because of wildfires, because of flooding. These things are going to continue. They’re going to get worse. And if we don’t do something about it, it’s going to become very expensive. And I think that’s the part that appeals to, or at least resonates with, a big part of our bipartisan community over here.

Vince: Absolutely. This is a huge economic issue. So, in terms of the energy transition that’s already underway, investing in electrification now is much cheaper than dealing with fossil-fuel-increased risk and increased disasters, and then making the transition. Because the transition will have to be made one way or another, better to do it now. But also, you know, if you look at it at the household level, we are very terrible actually at looking ahead, long-term planning and thinking beyond a season away really. But one group that does forecast and does need to look at that is the insurance industry. And insurers are already saying that it’s too expensive or they’re just simply not going to insure in massively climate risk areas.

McNiel: My brother, who is definitely a middle-class hardworking guy, has been his whole life, lives in Florida. And to replace his roof, it’s going to cost him $30,000. And his insurance company’s saying, “If you don’t replace your roof, your premium’s going to go up to $20,000 a year.” Now for him, that’s a tremendous amount of money.

Vince: I think it is for all of us.

McNiel: He’s leaving the state. He’s got to go somewhere else. He can’t afford to live there anymore. And that’s going to happen a lot.

Vince: Exactly. So people who can’t get insurance, they can’t get mortgages, right? So what will happen to the house prices is they will actually drive movement away from those places. But the big problem, of course, is most people don’t want to move. Like your brother is considering moving. But most people, they have their network of family and friends and their jobs and their kids are at school and their grandparents are by to help with childcare. There is a network effect of staying where you are. And most people don’t want to leave, especially after a certain age. You know, we’re not talking about 20-somethings. We’re talking quite often about people in their sixties. They have everything they need there. And so they might leave it too late to move, and then they can’t sell their house because no one will insure the property. So no one will then buy that property. And if all their wealth is tied up essentially in their property, they can’t afford to move. And that’s really what the government should be talking about now and really acting on.

McNiel: I want people to understand that while this sounds very dire, your book is actually very optimistic. Your book talks about solutions and things that we can do to embrace what is the normal human evolution, which is we move, we go from place to place. We’ve followed the food, now we’re going to follow the economy. We’re going to follow comfort, we’re going to follow where people can make a contribution and raise a family. How do we make that happen in a way that’s safe and supportive of everybody?

Vince: This book is about being pragmatic. It’s about pragmatic solutions. It’s saying, “OK, given what we have, what are our choices?” Because we do have choices. And I would like to say, have a vision. Have a vision of the world you would like to see at the end of the century. And you know, my kids will be definitely around, they’ll be in old age. Well, it won’t be old age by then, I guess, because you know, what is it, 60 is the new 40, et cetera?

McNiel: Sixty is the new 30, I think.

Vince: So they’ll be in their 80s, I guess, and that’ll be the new 60s. What sort of world do I want for them? Do I want my kids conscripted into an army to fight fleeing Bangladeshis, fleeing Ecuadorians, fleeing people from Niger? Or would I much rather that they were living in expanded, denser, sustainable cities with a Bangladeshi neighbor or Ecuadorian neighbor?
Of course. I mean, it’s obvious to me what the choice is, and people will have to move to these livable parts of the planet. If we look at the globe, if we look at the climate models, there is a clear band of unlivable climate impacts which strikes really from the equator up and down into the tropics. And that’s large parts of the United States, most of South America, most of Africa, most of Australia actually, most of Asia. But then above that, there isn’t much land below that, right? Because of the shape of the continents.

McNiel: Canada’s going to be the new frontier for North America for sure.

Vince: Absolutely. Canada is, and Canada is taking a very pragmatic approach. I mean, it’s already, it’s trebling its population — that’s a national plan — through immigration. That’s part of the government policy looking ahead. They are being much more proactive in terms of–

McNiel: It’s a much different attitude than we have in the U.S. right now.

Vince: Yeah. In terms of producing sort of sustainable, productive cities with opportunity and purpose, you know.

McNiel: Yeah. I think we need to highlight the positive aspects of migration. I mean, if you grow up eating traditionally American food, which was brought over from Britain, it’s not very exciting. I mean, until you really sit down to a real Persian meal or a Lebanese meal or a good Chinese meal, you don’t know what real good food is. Right. So, I mean, cuisine is certainly a positive reason to support having neighbors from abroad.

Vince: I mean, that is very, very close to my heart. I am very, very food-led. So I would say that in terms of the cultural impacts of immigration, food is a huge highlight. But, you know, it’s not just food, it’s also music, it’s literature, it’s scientific creativity. It’s everything. And people can be very fearful, especially in smaller, homogenous towns where they’re not used to seeing people with different skin color, let alone different food types or religions–

McNiel: Languages.

Vince: Yeah. And feel that their identity may be lost. and their culture may be lost. And that doesn’t happen. You know, as long as there is a population that still supports the traditional food of that area, that food will still be available. What happens is you get additional choices and then you get these really interesting fusions.

Energy is at the heart of everything

Vince: When we talk about unlimited, cheap energy, there’s a chance we could get there quite quickly simply with renewables. Because once you invest in the initial outlay of the infrastructure, with enough solar or wind or geothermal — which is largely untapped at the moment and has huge potential, I think — once you invest in that infrastructure, you don’t need to keep refueling it, right? It’s there. It’s providing the energy. So we could get to a situation where we do have pretty abundant energy that is pretty cheap quite soon actually, and that would help a lot of the other problems that we have. Fusion could have an important role to play. Certainly, we should be looking at all of the options that we have going forward in terms of clean energy. And fusion is a part of that discussion, for sure.

McNiel: Yeah. And the U.K. is a leader in investing in this space, which is great.

Vince: You know, energy is really at the heart of absolutely everything. I mean, I think it’s limiting in biology as well. Biological evolution is driven largely by how much energy an organism can harvest. And certainly human cultural evolution has been driven by harnessing energy. When the first human lit the first spark of a fire and was able to cook its own food, protect itself, heat itself, it changed everything. And the costs of food, environmental costs, the costs of production of every single material that we use, it’s all limited by energy costs. And once they become much cheaper, everything else follows.

McNiel: I think you just did the tagline for this whole episode, which is that energy is at the center of everything. I mean, human migration, this nomad century we’re talking about could be substantially mitigated with the access to abundant clean energy.

A better vision for the future

Vince: There are plenty of dystopian narratives of the future. When you look at sci-fi, when you watch movies or read books about the future, it is often dystopian, because it’s more dramatic. It’s more exciting to have some horrible thing happen. But let’s try and imagine a good future, because this is the future that we can ourselves create. And then let’s take steps to make sure it happens. Rather than just reacting to each crisis as it happens, let’s try to plan. So in my ideal future, we have cities that are built for people, not for cars, for people. So they’re cities that are dense, they’re four to six stories high. It’s a walkable space. There isn’t the kind of industrial zone, the commercial zone, the residential zone where you have to travel to get to each one by car. It’s all there for you. It’s all there. And the streets, everything is adapted to the climate. So, we have flood mitigation zones that are green that can cope and store water. The buildings themselves generate energy rather than using energy only. There is a much more circularity of all the resources that we use. The air is clean, the water is clean. We have enough food, we have enough jobs and opportunities. We have these thriving new industries, whether it’s in biotech or whatever the neuroinformatics or whatever the industries of the next coming generation.

McNiel: A new agriculture which is integrated into the city.

Vince: Exactly. And we have these mixed communities from all over the world. They’re aligned in a vision of a better city that they are all part of, that they are included in for themselves and for their own children. You see, when we start imagining this vision of the future, it can be better. But whatever vision we have of the future, it has to incorporate an enormous restoration project. We need to restore the wild parts of our world. We need to make our world livable again so that we can recolonize the tropics. By the end of the century, I hope that this is a problem that we’ve solved.

McNiel: You know, I often think about — Bill Bryson wrote a book about a brief history of the world, and he talks about the landed gentry in the United Kingdom and the ability for these very, very privileged wealthy people to focus on chemistry and astronomy and science. And so much of what we know today, I mean, the works of Newton, the works of Hailey. These things come from very, very wealthy people who had the privilege of being educated and focusing on this stuff. And I view kind of a Downton Abbey future where we no longer have to do the labor that the serfs did or the people that were toiling in the fields, because it’s now automated, it’s robotic and everybody can focus on thinking and doing great things. Wouldn’t that be great?

Vince: I mean, it would.

McNiel: Maybe that’s what’s going to happen for your kids.

Vince: It would be much better. I’m halfway there with the dishwasher, but someone still has to fill it and empty it. So solve that problem first. But yeah, absolutely.

McNiel: Gaia, thank you so very much for your perspective and for your research and for your deft writing. Your book, it has a substantial modicum of optimism, which is really refreshing. Because people who circulate in the areas that you do in terms of being climate-oriented or focused tend to look at the bleak side of things, which is hard not to do, but it’s really important to offer a solution, which I think you did in “Nomad Century.” So thank you for that.

Vince: Thanks so much, Jim. I do really appreciate it, because I really want this conversation to move more widely.

McNiel: I agree.

Vince: So thanks for giving me that opportunity. I really appreciate it.

Good Clean Energy is edited and produced by Jennifer Hsu. Mixing and sound design by Wade Strange and Mike Clemow at SeeThruSound. Digital production by Katherine Wiles.

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