"Nobody and nowhere will be safe": Experts say we can't hide from climate change

In the movies, heroes can outrun the apocalypse. But in the real world there's no exit from the climate crisis

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published January 12, 2024 1:30PM (EST)

A man is seen walking in the area where the dam water recedes near Caglayan Bridge in Kirklareli, Turkiye on October 04, 2023. (Ozgun Tiran/Anadolu via Getty Images)
A man is seen walking in the area where the dam water recedes near Caglayan Bridge in Kirklareli, Turkiye on October 04, 2023. (Ozgun Tiran/Anadolu via Getty Images)

In science fiction movies that imagine a climate catastrophe, characters are often driven to flee disastrous conditions and retreat to a safer place to live. Whether the seeking a mysterious territory of Dryland in "Waterworld" or fleeing from all northern latitudes in "The Day After Tomorrow," pop culture foregrounds the notion that one can somehow "run away" from climate change. It is a tantalizing idea, a seeming off-ramp from the oppressively bleak reality of the near future, which may well include a seriously overheated planet where life in some places becomes unsustainable levels. Mainstream media outlets like Time and Business Insider have added to climate-migration speculation with articles about the supposed best places to live.

"Very few people have died of starvation with money in their pockets. Climate change hits hardest those with empty pockets."

But as various scientific experts told Salon in recent interviews, "climate migration" is not realistic for much of the world's population, and the premise that we can run away from climate change is false in the first place.

"Uprooting yourself and your family to move to another part of the world can take a huge amount of financial resources — which the wealthy have access to and the poor do not," explained Dr. Charlotte A. Kukowski, a postdoctoral research associate at the Cambridge Social Decision-Making Lab, and Dr. Emma Garnett, a researcher in the Sustainable and Healthy Food Group. The two scientists co-authored a recent study in the journal Nature Climate Change that focused on the importance of "tackling inequality" as our societies strive to move toward net-zero carbon emissions. Both in that article and in emails to Salon, Kukowski and Garnett noted "a further unjust barrier to poorer people relocating: many countries have income thresholds for a number of visas," including the U.K., where they live.

Of course, legal barriers are only one of many logistical and practical obstacles to climate emigration, at least for most human beings without considerable wealth at their disposal.

"It's hard for most people to find the available energy, time and mental bandwidth to voluntarily move somewhere else, especially to avoid a diffuse threat that is getting gradually stronger every year," Dr. Peter Kalmus, a NASA climate scientist, wrote to Salon. "Moving is expensive, and poorer people around the world are perhaps becoming less welcome in other nations as authoritarianism and fascism rise around the world." (Kalmus made clear he was speaking for himself, not for NASA or the federal government.)

Dr. Ken Caldeira, an atmospheric scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science's Department of Global Ecology, told Salon about his 2020 paper for the European Geosciences Union (co-authored with another scientist) which concluded that India is the nation with the largest potential number of people who might want to relocate due to climate change. But the cruel reality is that most of the Indian population will simply lack the financial means to do this.

"Very few people have died of starvation with money in their pockets," Caldeira wrote to Salon. "Climate change hits hardest those with empty pockets." Caldeira pointed to scholarly research which has found that people from low-income countries who are able to emigrate are overwhelmingly from the more affluent classes. "Migration is an option for people with money in their pockets," Caldeira added. "Migration takes resources. The subsistence farmer who is starving to death due to heat- and drought-induced crop failures does not have the resources necessary to partake in international travel."

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Yet even for the small percentage of people who do have the funds to travel anywhere in the world, most scientists agree that the idea of running away from climate change (as fictionalized in the recent TV miniseries "A Murder at the End of the World") is illusory. This phenomenon is literally impacting the entire planet, they insist, and in that sense no place is "safe" from climate change. 

"Nobody and nowhere will be safe," Dr. Michael E. Mann, a professor of earth and environmental science at the University of Pennsylvania, told Salon by email. "Less food, water and space is a recipe for heightened conflict and instability, and increasingly extreme weather events will interrupt supply chains and food distribution systems."

"Nobody and nowhere will be safe. Less food, water and space is a recipe for heightened conflict and instability, and increasingly extreme weather events will interrupt supply chains and food distribution systems."

Kalmus echoed that observation, saying that the multiple disasters of the last few years should make it clear that "there is no safe place." He continued, "Temperature is just too fundamental and inescapable, and drives so many process changes in the Earth system — everything is connected." The only valid distinctions, Kalmus said, are about places that are particularly unsafe, citing Miami and Phoenix as two cities where he has "no plans to move."

Kukowski and Garnett added that, generally speaking, the regions that will be worst impacted by climate change are also heavily populated areas where millions of low-income people face a difficult struggle ahead. "Nowhere is 'safe' from climate change but of course many people in certain parts of the world are more vulnerable than others," they wrote by email. "Tragically, those who are least responsible for climate change are the ones most at risk: namely low-income people in low-income countries in the global south. Low-lying regions such as Bangladesh are particularly vulnerable to storm surges and climate change-induced sea-level rise."

Some parts of the world are undeniably at less short-term risk than others, Kukowski and Garnett added. "That gives some of the super rich the idea that they can bunker down in a bunker in New Zealand and aren’t in this with the rest of us, and unfortunately that’s true to some extent." People who have money are disproportionately likely to live in cooler climates rather than tropical ones, and are also likely to be nearer the end of their lifespans rather than the beginning. So they have a much higher chance of leading relatively comfortable lives without enduring the worst of climate change.

If climate change affected individuals and rich societies in proportionate terms, relative to the amount of emissions they had created, "we wouldn't be in this mess," Kukowski and Garnett continued. "The rich, powerful and highly emitting would be personally incentivized to solve the crisis," They did observe the irony behind the fact that many wealthy and powerful people continue to purchase property in coastal regions that are vulnerable to storm surges and sea-level rise, describing that as "not a particularly sensible decision." But he more important issue, they said, is "making sure those whose primary residences are particularly vulnerable to climate change are given the support to relocate if they wish. We also need to ensure that emissions align with fair shares so that the rich do not continue to drive unprecedented levels of climatic change and associated extreme weather events."

Mann had harsh words for conservatives and so-called climate skeptics who try to deflect attention from the global crisis by criticizing the carbon profiles or real estate decisions of prominent liberals like Barack Obama and John Kerry. "It’s total bull***t and they know it," he wrote by email. "One of the most dishonest arguments I’ve seen. Barack Obama and John Kerry aren’t harming anyone. Climate deniers, with their crocodile tears and bad-faith charges of hypocrisy, are harming everyone."

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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