Phase Transition in People’s Movements

(Source: Mitratech)

As I mentioned in earlier blogs, my spring semester is over, and the summer break has started. My wife and I have been dealing with some health issues and we were thinking seriously about staying home, recuperating, and doing some home-bound research (AI??) to get us ready for the Fall semester that starts at the end of August. Then, the sky turned orange on us, Manhattan became invisible, and there were predictions that the situation will worsen when El Niño comes to visit later in the summer. The issue isn’t confined to where I live, either. Local scenes all over are predicted to expand and worsen:

As climate change drives an increase in wildfires, we’re seeing more smoke lofted into the upper atmosphere each fire season. Depending on wind and weather, this smoke can spread hundreds or thousands of miles from its source—as we saw in early June on the U.S. East Coast.

And we’re likely to continue seeing it increase in severity, frequency, and longevity as the planet warms.

In addition to these prospects, the head of our family in Australia (my cousin – older than me!!) is not in great shape. We decided it’s time to forget all our problems here and visit him in Australia (it’s the start of winter there). We leave soon.

Meanwhile, the climate crisis is also starting to take shape as a financial crisis:

This month, the largest homeowner insurance company in California, State Farm, announced that it would stop selling coverage to homeowners. That’s not just in wildfire zones, but everywhere in the state. Insurance companies, tired of losing money, are raising rates, restricting coverage or pulling out of some areas altogether — making it more expensive for people to live in their homes. “Risk has a price,” said Roy Wright, the former official in charge of insurance at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and now head of the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety, a research group. “We’re just now seeing it.”

It’s not just the insurance companies that are calculating the livability of different places. According to ProPublica:

Climate change is remapping where humans can exist on the planet. As optimum conditions shift away from the equator and toward the poles, more than 600 million people have already been stranded outside of a crucial environmental niche that scientists say best supports life. By late this century, according to a study published last month in the journal Nature Sustainability, 3 to 6 billion people, or between a third and a half of humanity, could be trapped outside of that zone, facing extreme heat, food scarcity and higher death rates, unless emissions are sharply curtailed or mass migration is accommodated.

In an earlier blog (September 17, 2019), I tried to explain how a mama polar bear teaches her cubs the nature of phase transition by noting the sizes of icebergs floating in the surrounding water and pointing out how they constantly change. That blog was focused on energy transition. This blog is focused on people’s attempts to move when they face changes that they don’t like. I started it with my simple vacation announcement (getting out of NYC). There’s been another major movement: as a result of COVID-19, it was a necessity, for a time, to do much of our work from home. Technology developed that enabled many of us to do so much more conveniently. This technology stays with us, even as the pandemic is abating, triggering major societal changes. distinguishes between the movements of people, starting with the following introduction:

There are a lot of words to refer to people who move from one place to another. Some are used in overlapping ways, but there are key differences between many of them, including whether the person is coming or going, and for what reasons.

The dictionary chooses to concentrate on differentiating between the following classes of movement:

⚡ Quick summary

  • emigrant vs. immigrant: An emigrant is someone who emigrates—moves away from a country. An immigrant is someone who immigrates—moves to a different country. Both words can apply to the same person—a person must first emigrate to immigrate. However, these terms are often used to distinguish different groups, such as when tracking how many people are moving to a country and how many are moving away.
  • immigrant vs. migrant: Migrant can generally refer to a person who moves from one place to another (or back and forth). It’s often used more specifically to refer to a migrant worker (who moves from place to place for work) or as another way of referring to an immigrant (which implies permanent relocation), especially one who may be subject to removal from the country they are trying to relocate to.
  • migrant vs. refugee: Refugee specifically implies that a person is fleeing their country for their safety, often due to war or political persecution. This may be the case for many migrants, but the word itself does not imply this, and the term is used more broadly.
  • refugee vs. asylum seeker: Asylum seeker specifically refers to a person who applies for refuge or asylum in a foreign country or its embassy, especially for political reasons. Some refugees may be asylum seekers, but not all asylum seekers necessarily consider themselves refugees.

The smaller movements, such as travel and workplace choices, are not mentioned; these include the “movements” that I am currently engaged in. These small movements are mostly voluntary and taken by people that can afford them, as opposed to the mostly forced movements described by the dictionary. In a sense, I started my life among those labels listed above—the Holocaust forced me to migrate—and I am closing my life as a voluntary traveler.

The constant movement of people throughout the world is not new; nor is such movement unique to humans. Everything that can move does so to better their survival prospects. Our current situation is introducing natural limits to both human population and livable places. Now climate change, driven by anthropogenic changes in livable places, is accelerating those limits and converting the situation to a phase transition. There are two main phases as I see them: either the availability of living places decreases to a degree that might drive the human race to extinction, or we adapt and mitigate the changes, allowing humanity to flourish in the future. The latter option would depend on transitioning our energy use to fusion and thus converting Earth to a “star” that will circle the sun as a binary system with robotic, artificial intelligence to guide humanity’s long-term existence. Based on our current global governing system, if I were a betting man, I would bet on the dark side (extinction), and do what I could to shift the prospects.

Let us examine a bit more closely the prospective limits to living space:

Globally the exponential population increase over the last century has driven various movements based on the final sizes of the habitable land. One of my favorite science blogs gives an overview:

Landcover is one key way that we can measure how much of the terrestrial environment has been covered by humans. Earth’s surface is about 500 million km2, but most of that (70.8%) is water, which we’re not really very good at. So ignoring oil rigs and the occasional cruise liner, we’re only talking about a total possible land surface to cover of roughly 149 million km2.

The thing is, landcover is something that is changing (and our technology to estimate it is improving) constantly, so even fairly recent estimates may already be out of date. A meta-analysis in 2011, which included 326 studies of urban landcover using remote sensing technology such as satellite images, found that urban landcover increased by nearly 60,000 km2 between 1970 and 2000.

In the year 2000, estimates suggest that globally, urban land covered somewhere between 700,000 and 3.5 million km2 – but that’s a pretty big margin of error. The meta-analysis found that the largest rates of increase in urban landcover were seen in India, China and Africa, while North America experienced the largest total change since 1970. In all regions, urban land expanded either faster or equivalent to population growth rates, suggesting our societies are also becoming more expansive.

Using data from 1970 to 2000, the researchers then tried to project future urban land cover change – their results predict that global urban landcover will increase by a further 1.5 million km2 by 2030. Over half-way to this prediction, where are we now?

Trying to explain the consequences of humanity’s movements to her cubs is a big job for a mama polar bear, and I am afraid that it will not get easier—either for her or the rest of us.

About climatechangefork

Micha Tomkiewicz, Ph.D., is a professor of physics in the Department of Physics, Brooklyn College, the City University of New York. He is also a professor of physics and chemistry in the School for Graduate Studies of the City University of New York. In addition, he is the founding-director of the Environmental Studies Program at Brooklyn College as well as director of the Electrochemistry Institute at that same institution.
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