Hotting Up

Millions of people around the world are being forced from their homes to escape violent circumstances. Many more aspire to move to another country in search of a better life for themselves and their families. These twin pressures for mass migration are already causing major trauma to the political situation in destination countries. And they are about to be joined by a third factor with the potential to result in tragedy on a massive scale: climate change.

There are two broad groups of reasons why large numbers of people may want to up sticks and move to a different country. They can be categorised as cause push, and opportunity pull. Up until now, probably the most common push factors have been war and politics. The birth of India and Pakistan in 1947 saw millions of people scrambling to get on the "right" side of the new borders. Closer to home, the aftermath of the war in Vietnam saw hundreds of thousands of those associated with the losing regime flee from the south, many stopping over in Hong Kong on their way to safety in a sanctuary country.

More recently, the appalling civil war in Syria has seen millions of its citizens displaced, mostly to adjacent countries such as Jordan and Turkey, though over a million flooded into western Europe, many finishing up in Germany. The unsettled situation in Myanmar has seen over 700,000 Muslim Rohingya fleeing into neighbouring Bangladesh. India has placed a question mark over the residence right of four million people by leaving them off a citizens register, apparently on suspicion many of them might be unauthorised migrants from Bangladesh.

The opportunity pull aspect of migration has undergone a step change in recent years largely thanks to technological progress. The possibility of a better life somewhere else has historically been uncertain because of a lack of reliable information about what life "over there" was really like. It takes time for hard news to filter back. This argued for caution and status quo, with a risky passage only being chanced when circumstances were compelling. But now with mobile phones so prevalent everyone can see for themselves pictures of what life is like in wealthy countries. The certainty of misery and poverty at home in poorer parts of the world can now be directly contrasted with screen shots of well-fed people living a much more comfortable life.

The most desirable destination countries have struggled to cope with the mass of arrivals both practically and politically. Recent election results in Europe have shown conclusively that feelings run high among ordinary voters. The new government in Italy has taken a tough line against would-be migrants arriving from north Africa, even turning boats away. In Sweden an anti-migrant party finished a close third behind two long established middle of the road ones. German politics are still affected by the arrival of around a million migrants in 2015, mostly from Syria. The hard right Alternative for Germany party is now the official opposition. In Denmark, Austria, Poland and Hungary to name a few, general public sentiment is strongly against large numbers of people being allowed entry and settlement. Some analysts believe immigration was a major factor in the Brexit vote in the UK, and in the election of Donald Trump. What to do with asylum seekers is a hot button issue in Australia.

In all of the cases, the exact causes vary, but cultural differences, antagonistic religious beliefs, sometimes naked racism all play some part.

Into this tricky mix we must now bring in the fact of climate change. The world’s climate has always varied over the ages as the deniers never cease to point out. But the scientific community has reached a high degree of consensus that human activity – in particular the widespread use of coal and other carbon emitting fuels since the modern industrial era began – is bringing fresh impetus to bear. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2018 is on track to be the fourth hottest year on record. Only three other years have been hotter: 2015, 2016 and 2017.

We in Hong Kong have just experienced probably the largest and strongest typhoon in our history. Meteorologists say there may be slightly fewer such storms in future, but more of them will be larger and stronger. At a global level, the real danger is that melting ice at the north pole and on Greenland will cause sea levels to rise which will put several countries under water. Already, the Maldives government has held an underwater cabinet meeting to highlight concern.

The islands’ population is under half a million: perhaps they could be squeezed into Sri Lanka. How about Fiji and other islands at risk in the Pacific? Not more than two million or so in total, perhaps New Zealand could take them in. But what are we going to do if Bangladesh slips beneath the waves. Where do we expect the 163 million to go?

The world knows these things of course and we also know what to do to avert tragedy. The problem is the costs of coping with climate change are right here, right now, as are the voters who must be persuaded to cover those costs. And at our hour of maximum peril, the leader of the free world has abdicated.

Not content with pulling the USA out of the Paris Climate accord, which had given the earth a glimmer of hope, Trump has put new emphasis on the coal industry in America. At his age, maybe he is not concerned with long term consequences. But as a father and grandfather he should be. His grandchildren in particular – like the rest of the world – will not forgive him.