Defining the Geopolitics of a Thirsty WorldSM
Climate Change and Water Scarcity: Giving Rise To Human Migration

Courtesy of Circle of Blue, an interview focused on how climate change and shifting water supplies are causing the greatest migration in human history:

J. Carl Ganter:

This is Speaking of Water from Circle of Blue. I’m J. Carl Ganter.

Parag Khanna:

There are many drivers and they’re all in overdrive right now.

JCG:

Human civilization is moving and with climate change and shifting water supplies, we face the greatest migration in human history.

PK:

And yet, how do we consider mass resettlement of the world population?

JCG:

What’s that mean for nations and communities today? We talk with author Parag Khanna, about his new book and his four scenarios for the future.

JCG:

Today we’re joined by Parag Khanna, he’s author of the new book, Move: The Forces Uprooting Us. And he’s also author of Connectography: Mapping the Future of Global Civilization. Hey Parag.

PK:

Hey Carl. Great to see you again.

JCG:

First, I think I’m really interested in your fascination with maps and with both human and physical geography. Tell me a little bit about that interest.

Parag Khanna’s Maps

PK:

It’s page one of this book. Basically, I go back to my freshman year geopolitics class from college and the professor who really got us thinking about political geography, but the layers of geography.

The distribution of the 8 billion people on the planet is deeply embedded and contingent upon other layers of geography.

And in Connectography, which you mentioned was the prequel to this book. That was a book about functional geography, the geography of infrastructure, the built environment and its impact on the world economy and geopolitics. And I wanted to scratch this itch. I wanted to do a book about human geography and for most people that’s just a fancy way of saying migration, but it’s not. The distribution of the 8 billion people on the planet is deeply embedded and contingent upon other layers of geography. Natural geography, the functional geography, I mentioned. Political geography of borders and so on, in a complex interplay.

PK:

And we don’t make maps that properly represent the intersection and overlapping of these layers. We tend to look at the world, literally look at the world in the sense of look at a map of the world and see either political boundaries superseding everything else. On a Road Atlas it’s infrastructure that supersedes everything else. And of course, natural maps that in which the environment supersedes everything else. The truth is our reality is a mélange of those things. And on almost no maps in the mainstream, do you actually see people. You don’t see pixels that represent the geography of human beings and why we are where we are.

PK:

So I set out to write this book that answers the question, where will you live in 2050? And to map it out and to explain how we got to where we will be and why and where. And it turned out to be not so straightforward actually. And that’s the story of the book and how, of course, I… It compelled me of course, to push new boundaries with maps. There’s a couple of original maps in this book, not as many as Connectography. But we actually just keep on making more and more at this point, whether or not they go into a book is secondary. They are definitely all on the maps page of my website.

JCG:

Awesome. So In your book you quote National Geographic, they say this is the largest tide of rootlessness in human history. So, let’s go there. What’s that mean when we’re talking about rootlessness in human history?

PK:

Well, so in a way we have been a nomadic species for more than 100,000 years, nomadism and mobility is intrinsic to the essence of what it is to be human. We may have forgotten that in the last couple of centuries where we became more sedentary, not everyone was lucky enough to be sedentary. Not everyone is lucky enough to live in stable place, climatically, politically, economically, socially, and otherwise, but we could generalize and say that people became sedentary. But the drivers of what cause people to move, what causes human geography to shift. There are many drivers and they’re all in overdrive right now. And those are the ones that I tackle in the book. So for example, just the demographic imbalances in the world, the gap between old and young people, all the old people are in places with low fertility and aging labor forces like Northern countries, OECD countries.

PK:

And all the young people are in developing countries that are to some degree overpopulated. Then there is of course, climate change, which is driving people away from ecologically stressed regions towards more habitable regions.

Then there is of course, climate change, which is driving people away from ecologically stressed regions towards more habitable regions.

Then there’s politics, civil wars, conflicts and so forth. And expulsions are driving people away from places. And of course, economic, when there are economic crises or technological disruption. If your job is lost due to globalization or automation, you may leave the place where you’ve lived in order to find somewhere more affordable. And now with remote work, you could be advantaged by being a digital nomad who’s skilled and in demand, and you can live anywhere you want. So technology enables mobility in multiple ways.

PK:

So all of these are the main forces that drive people to move historically. And by and large, we’ve been economic migrants particularly for the last several hundred years. But the irony of the moment is of course, that COVID represented the most coordinated lockdown in human history. So the additional question I needed to pose is, how will the future of human geography change? What new vectors will emerge? And what new patterns and practices will emerge out of the lockdown?

JCG:

What assumptions or predictions are you making? And then what assumptions do you see policy makers and that “orbital perspective” we might be getting wrong? What future is ahead?

PK:

That’s a great question. I mean, in the short term, I think it’s a very significantly mistaken assumption to think that the people are literally going to sit still and this is the new normal. It’s not actually true. Not at all true. Even during the lockdown, people were moving, people were moving back to places and that’s also moving. What I do is, I don’t necessarily make predictions. I make scenarios, right? So in the book, they’re four scenarios. There is one called regional fortresses in which we do invest in north America and Europe and east Asia and more sustainability, but we ward off migrants. Another scenario is called the new middle ages, where our sustainability efforts are insufficient. We are turn to almost survivalist hunter gatherer mode, and there’s still limited migration and localized, but it’s definitely haphazard.

PK:

Then the another scenario that is called barbarians at the gate. So it’s like the new middle ages, but with uncontrolled mass migrations and water wars and significant resource stress. And then the fourth scenario is called northern lights. And it’s where we actually undertake a gradual resettlement of the world population. And we do so in a sustainable way. And that’s obviously the scenario that I’m trying to get people to aspire towards and build towards. But note that three of the four scenarios that I posit not particularly positive. So, as I say, we really need to thread the needle. And my goal was of course, to provide a roadmap to that.

JCG:

So, the big question, if you had the ear of the White House or China or other world leaders. What are some of the things that you’d be telling them right now, as far as sequencing?

All of the emissions’ reduction schemes in the world aren’t going to suddenly reverse the drought that afflicts so much of the world today.

PK:

Well, for one thing before we talk about sequencing, let’s talk about balancing, right? So you have the COP26 agenda, which is focused on climate mitigation, right? And that’s obviously very important. To mitigate climate change. To decarbonize industries. To invest massively in alternative and renewable energy potentially. To undertake geoengineering initiatives that could be carbon sequestration. It could be atmospheric, sulfur injections and that kind of stuff. Potentially all of it is necessary. But as you know, very well, Carl, the climate is a complex system. It doesn’t actually return to what it was in the year, 1800, 1900 or 2000, right? It evolves continuously in new directions and it’s going to be different from what it was. All of the emissions’ reduction schemes in the world aren’t going to suddenly reverse the drought that afflicts so much of the world today.

PK:

And so in terms of rebalancing the agenda, we need to have an equal effort and Manhattan projects, as some people like to say, for adaptation, as much as we have for mitigation. And adaptation means how do we adapt our infrastructure, how do we build differently? And yes, how do we consider mass resettlement of the world population? And that’s ultimately the scenario that I’m playing with in the book is what does mass resettlement look like? What do mass migrations look like in this century? What are they driven by? Because it’s not primarily driven by economic arbitrage though, that’s still huge. It’s not primarily driven by political unrest, though that’s still huge. Suddenly in this century, climate migrants have overtaken other categories of migrants and we don’t have a legal strategy for them, and we don’t have an overarching political or logistical approach to them.

PK:

And I think that’s part of what adaptation about. Is thinking about large scale resettlement. And of course you should not expect governments gathered at COP26 to focus on adaptation because that’s explicitly not on the agenda. Indeed, it runs contrary to the intrinsic nature of sovereignty itself and sovereign governments getting together to talk about enabling the one thing that sovereignty is still really about, which is pre preventing people from crossing borders. I’m a hyper realist about the difficult that we face in arranging large scale migrations. And I don’t really talk about it on a global scale, other than the aggregate number. I talk about geography, right? Ultimately with all the maps I make it does come down to geography. Latin Americans are not suddenly going to be relocated to Russia. Right? There are proximities, gravities, familiarities that are really important in these conversations. So, as with all my other books, this one is structured geographically, right. And I go around the world and look at the specific dynamics.

JCG:

Before we get to Michigan, something I do want to get to and water, What role is China’s and some of the assumptions about their Belt and Road Initiative, and some of their other growing virtual or real roads on the map. What’s that portend for the future of maps as well as connectography.

PK:

Right. Well, there are a couple things. One is just China, as it relates to the energy system, right? China has, in roughly this sequence, invested massively in expanding global hydrocarbon production for its own industrial uses and shifted global hydrocarbon supply chains towards itself. And it’s needed to do that since the 1980s and 1990s. Then it’s also… Obviously at the same time and became more largest greenhouse gas emitter in the process and began to export its various forms of energy production, particularly coal. So anything that China does today in all of the things that it is doing around solar, becoming a world leader in solar, in nuclear and a wide range of other areas, it’s still not enough to overturn everything that’s still going on, even as they try to slow down on dirty fuels. And I think that’s significant.

PK:

So yes, they have announced that they’re going to be phasing out coal fire power plants.

Let’s remember that every single ton of emissions that continues going back 20 years and into the next 20 years is still doing damage. And it still does require us to adapt.

They’ve announced that they will stop exporting coal fire power plants. But let’s remember that every single ton of emissions that continues going back 20 years and into the next 20 years is still doing damage. And it still does require us to adapt. So the Belt and Road comes in, in interesting ways because on the one hand, again, it’s a self-serving initiative to build infrastructural ties to other countries, to be able to more efficiently extract and acquire resources from them. On the other hand, it also creates the infrastructures by which people will move circulate into more climate resilient geographies of Eurasia, which is of course where the majority of the world population lives. So in the end, there is also talk and parallel to all of this of a Green Belt and Road, right?

PK:

So not just the Belt and Road of power projects and transportation infrastructure, but even high voltage electricity transmission from solar farms and projects like this. So, whether or not you have a Green Belt and Road and agricultural Belt and Road and so on. What you have is infrastructure across the continent that contains about two thirds of the human population. So as someone who wants to enable a greater circulation of people to climate resilient areas, it could well be that Belt and Road associated projects in Russia and Central Asia are actually going to be very useful for that, even though that has nothing whatsoever to do with the original intent.

JCG:

Giulio Boccaletti in his new book, Water: A Biography, talks about how water has defined civilizations really up until this day and our location, even some of our legal systems. So what role is water playing in maps in these migration trends that you’re seeing?

PK:

Huge, of course. I mean, there’s places where there’s too much water in places where there’s too little, right? And that’s very simplistic heuristic that I use in the book, but it’s not irrelevant obviously. Because places where there floods force people to migrate and in those same geographies, one needs to think about what infrastructure would be better suited to capture glacier melt or flood water and channel it deeper into aquifers to replenish water tables and reservoirs, that kind of thing, because we need to not waste—have this water disappear. So, I mean, in mountainous regions on the one end it’s, “Wow, you’re overwhelmed with fresh water. This is great.” No, not so much because if you don’t control it, you wipe out this season’s agriculture and then you’re running it low out of seasons, because eventually those glaciers are completely melted.

PK:

So when I looked around at the mountain ranges of the world to try to assess the situation, not surprisingly between the Andes and the Rockies and the Alps and the Himalayas. I mean the Andes are not infrastructurally or fiscally or strategically there, right? So you already see deep concern in Chile about this, literally running out of water eventually.

In the Rockies, you’ve got populations growing in Colorado and elsewhere, but insufficient attention to the likelihood that the glaciers are going to melt very quickly that the Rocky mountain water supply will diminish.

In the Rockies, you’ve got populations growing in Colorado and elsewhere, but insufficient attention to the likelihood that the glaciers are going to melt very quickly that the Rocky mountain water supply will diminish. And even if it does make its way to the Colorado River, it’s not going to be enough given the massive growing downstream populations of Nevada and California.

PK:

The Alps, obviously one can have faith in because this is a cluster of very wealthy countries with incredible engineering prowess. So France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, individually and together probably will find ways to control glacial melt and that runoff into productive purposes, agricultural and otherwise. So for their soil fertility and so forth. So I don’t worry too much about them or the richest countries effectively in the world. And again, what matters is also having the engineering prowess. That’s also something that China is known for, but the difference is that what China does or will do with the river systems, that it controls have massive downstream implications in multiple directions. So of course, their efforts on the South North water transfer and so on, could be good for China’s drought stricken Northeastern cities or parch Northeastern cities or cities where they’ve just exhausted or polluted their water supply. But it’s terrible for the predictability of river flows for South Asian countries, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and into the Southeast Asia with the Mekong River.

PK:

So, where you’re seeing just lack of predictability in water flows. So, I have a lot of concerns about those geographies. And then of course we should mention the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in the Nile River, which are of course, trickling at this point and have to sustain entire civilizations. And what I foresee there and I write about in the book in chapter sections on Egypt and on where the Anatolia, where the Turkic world meets the Purge and Arab worlds is where I foresee a significant swirling of populations because Iran has recorded temperatures of 140 plus degrees. Plus you’ve got the conflicts, Iraq and Syria, and not directly bordering, but you have Lebanon and Jordan. And these are basically failed states that are environmentally torched. And meanwhile, in Eastern Turkey, you have the headwaters of the Tigris–Euphrates rivers.

PK:

Your verdant, livable, perfectly habitable terrain, it’s completely empty. And again, as someone who looks at the history of political geography and cartography and population movements, you can’t help, but think, “Hmm, I wonder what’s going to happen over the next 10, 15, 20 years.” So, as I was traveling in this region, I’ve spent a bit of over… I’ve done multiple trips through Eastern Turkey. And it’s just remarkable how many fewer Turks you see, because for them it’s a poor and underdeveloped region, so they move westward, but you’re starting to see more Iranians and Arabs and so forth.

PK:

we don’t have a strategy at all for what to do for drought stricken places where rivers have dried up and water tables have evaporated, right? It’s just that we don’t have a plan.

So you can see this process gradually happening. And I give similar examples in Central Asia where you have sufficient water from the Tian Shan mountains and Kazakhstan and so forth. So, water is crucial, absolutely crucial. I don’t think again, when speaking about the divide between mitigation and adaptation,  we don’t have a strategy at all for what to do for drought stricken places where rivers have dried up and water tables have evaporated, right? It’s just that we don’t have a plan. And I don’t think that we’re going to have one in the timeframe that’s necessary, which is why I focus so much on migration as the only the remaining salvation.

JCG:

So without a plan, are you getting response from those who are thinking about this as national security issues? I know when we did our work in China on water and energy, we caught the attention of the Chinese government and the US government because it became (clear that water was) a national security threat. Is that starting to inch up on the radar?

PK:

Of course, it is. And look, I would say it’s also the water-energy nexus in the sense that there are those countries that are thinking about how to do renewable power based water desalination, maybe concentrated solar, nuclear, whatever the case may be in the Gulf countries. That’s already a big thing, Saudi Arabia, the UAE. So I think that we’re going to see a lot more desalination, but we have to think about the full life cycle, right? And supply chain of that, because you obviously have a lot of waste that’s generated that you don’t want to be dumping back into the sea. But then of course that’s still insufficient, right? In a big way. But this is localized. I mean, places where they’re rising sea levels, you need a new infrastructure strategy. I don’t see that in many places. You take the example of Indonesia, saying that it’s going to its capital, but actually it’s not because it can’t afford to. And it didn’t really pick a smart secondary location.

PK:

So of course it’s creeping up the agenda in a big way. But as I think you, and I would share this view that water wars don’t create more water. So let’s not immediately securitize the issue, which is something that I would say we as Americans tend to do. And I’ve witnessed happen in many contexts, including this one. Securitizing the environmental issue is, find a way to raise it up the agenda because that works in a way that fear works. But as we know, that’s not going to be the right… That’s not the right solution. Getting attention and devising solutions are two very different things. So, reading a lot about the role of agriculture industry, the built environment into this, I obviously, do believe that we can do a lot more with present and emerging technologies around conservation and efficiency and in some parts of the world that is actually going to be enough to maintain stability and water levels if you do it now. But in many places, it’s not going to be enough.

PK:

And I don’t like to be a defeatist or to throw in the towel here. But again, I’m focused on human geography and the fact is you can’t survive more than a day, right? Without water. And so I’m being very realistic when I say that the most tried and true, the most reliable, the most essential, the most immediate survival strategy for humankind is literally migration.

JCG:

Just a point of irony too. On the morning… the president in Indonesia announced they were moving the capital, I was literally standing at sunrise on the sea wall that holds back the ocean from flooding Jakarta, the capital.

PK:

That is crazy.

JCG:

Talk about coincidence. I’m reporting in from Michigan here and a lot of talk of course, about climate migration, starting to talk about that. Starting to talk about the Great Lakes, 20 percent of the world’s surface fresh water. So two things, one is, what’s in store in the… say the American Midwest for the American Midwest. And then I want to come before we wrap up too. I want to get your recommendations on… You talked about sequencing and sequencing infrastructure. What does that mean for a small community all the way up to a nation? But let’s start with the Midwest and the Great Lakes.

PK:

Think about where the habitable locations are such as climate haven of the Great Lakes region.

Absolutely. Well, this has been a topic in multiple books for me as the future of this geography based on… I mean, when I was writing Connectography I was looking at the irony again of the depopulated nature of the region, given the fact that it is a Climate Oasis. So I double down on that in this book. And here I get more into the sequencing and I say, “Look, fiscal resources are scarce.” And with certain irrevocable climate effects already baked in and predictable, we should… If we’re going to spend two, three, four trillion dollars on interest structure over the next 10, 20 years, the way to do it is to first accept the reality of the certain geographies that are no longer going to be livable or habitable, parts of coastal Louisiana, and other parts of the Gulf Coast, maybe the Carolinas. Then think about where the habitable locations are such as climate haven of the Great Lakes region.

PK:

And then start to think about what incentives you’re going to deploy to move people there so that they can have productive livelihoods and not continue to be in survival mode. And then you plan your infrastructure accordingly, right? And then those states get more exposure, more resources, more investment, because they are the correct places based upon what we know about the future to have more people reside.

PK:

Now, I think you and I know this, and I’m positively in a way surprised that the forces have aligned with the Army Corps of Engineer and HUD and FEMA that are saying, “Look, we’re going to start having very clear guidelines and risk scoring around vulnerable geographies. We’re going to assert eminent domain, and you simply cannot use our reconstruction grants to go back to places that are just going to get destroyed again.” The next step would be that people are more, not just in a free market way, not just in accidental way, directed towards the Gulf, sorry, towards the Great Lakes region and the Northeast, but more actively incentivized to go there. And I think that that maybe is the logical next step.

PK:

And then there’s the key part that you and I, really believe that where the emphasis should lie. Which is what I call civilization 3.0, which is that whatever we build needs to have a very light and sustainable footprint, right? We need to enable people to be circular environments as it were, right? Ensuring minimal over consumption of resources, using water recycling techniques and feeding that into hydro and aquaponics agriculture, reducing the supply chain, building 3D printed homes. Ideally moveable homes, flat pack, whatever the case may be, all of these ways, wind and solar power. So make sure that we don’t do to the Great Lakes region, what we’ve done to the rest of the world, because this is kind of our last chance, right?

PK:

So, I do focus on the region and focus on how I think it should be done right technologically, but also this policy in fiscal sequencing. There’s no more important time for us to be beating this drum, because of course there is so much money on the table and there’s so little genuine national strategy too. Which is why I believe that… Again, localism and which is to say yourselves, people in Michigan, in the Great Lake region, you do know best. And hearing those voices, elevating those voices, taking that guidance is going to be extremely important in the coming years. And that’s something that I’m emphasizing alongside you.

JCG:

Great. Well, thank you. And what’s response are you getting…. Just a couple last questions. From say, when you were speaking to civic groups in the Great Lakes, are they seeing this as something that’s doable? … Are you seeing some uptake on this at the local level?

PK:

I mean, there’s no question that communities that I’ve interviewed and spoken to have been very… They really are appreciate the validation that… For example, if you look at, in Vermont, these communities that are trying to do… Agricultural communities and I always call it kibbutzes in America, right? And they’re openly welcoming climate migrants from the rest of the country and so on. So I think that there’s very positive trends there. And I think we do need to restructure our local economies around this local self-sufficiency. And so, yeah, I mean, I emphasize that in the book. I’ve talked to groups that are active in this process that are real leaders that aren’t getting the attention that they deserve, because this is our future.

JCG:

Parag Khanna, author of the book, Move: The Forces Uprooting Us. Thanks for joining us, as always.

PK:

Carl, thank you so much. Always enlightening.



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