Will we migrate to danger?

Back in August I attended a conference on Market Adaptation to Climate Change hosted by Stanford’s Program on Energy and Sustainable Development (PESD) and the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC). The conference, as one might guess from the title, was focused primarily on climate change. However I found one paper in particular of great relevance to open borders.

In their working paper, Geography of Development: Evaluating Migration Restrictions and Coastal Flooding, Desmet et al. arrive at two key conclusions:

  • If migration restrictions remain then, in the long run, economic production will shift from the global north towards what is today considered the developing world (i.e. Africa and Asia). This is driven by the long term benefits of close proximity to other people, namely lowered transaction costs, which promote increases in technology and productivity. Consider the San Francisco Bay Area as an example; part of the reason why the region is so productive is because of the high concentration of high-skilled individuals. A computer engineer is several times more productive in the Bay Area, where he can quickly interact with his peers, than if he were working in a sparsely populated town in South Dakota.


  • If migration restrictions are liberalized then individuals will migrate to the global north in pursuit of higher standards of living, but this will ultimately place more individuals in danger of sea level rise. Current developed regions remain high in productivity, with an increase in productivity in a few of the currently developing regions.


Both findings are at odds to how Open Borders: The Case bloggers usually view the future.

One of the strongest cases for open borders is that it is a humanitarian way to promote productivity. Yet in this simulation the currently developing world catches up and overtakes the current developed world in productivity in the long run.  The case for open borders becomes one then not only of providing a short -term humanitarian way to improve the productivity of those in the developing world, but one to preserve the long term economic dominance of the currently developed world. Support for open borders needn’t be based on altruism – even nativists should support open borders in order to preserve the perceived prestige of their country.

Secondly the paper suggests that open borders would actually lead to more people being placed in danger’s path by allowing migration to the highly productive coastal regions. Silicon Valley, New York, and other world cities tend to be prone to flooding. When we’ve discussed climate change we have usually  taken the stance that open borders will alleviate any possible harms. See Nathan and Joel.

I still think that open borders would help address climate change. I do not disagree with Desmet et al. that open borders would lead to greater migration to coastal regions, but I doubt that human beings would allow themselves to drown. High productivity regions that expected to be in danger of being flooded by sea level rises will likely invest in public works (e.g. sea walls) or build on higher ground. Surely there must be countless people working to prevent the San Francisco Bay Area from sea level rises – if not I have just given readers a free start-up firm idea.

As Joel, an OB co-author, has pointed out, per capita infrastructure costs will also decrease as more migrants settle in coastal regions. Most adaptations to climate change, such as seawalls or large scale cooling centers,  become increasingly feasible as the number of people willing to pay increases.

Humanity has never lived in a static world – we’ve constantly been adapting to changes in culture, technology, and climate. It may come to pass that one day we will meet a challenge that we are unable to overcome, but I am generally optimistic about our future.

This paper, as most papers of its type, is highly speculative and for simplicity omits several variables. Nonetheless it serves as a helpful ‘What if?’ scenario.

Michelangelo Landgrave

Michelangelo Landgrave is an economics graduate student at California State University, Long Beach.

Leave a Reply