In 2012 Nathan suggested that the negative impacts of climate change likely “… will fall disproportionately on poor countries…” but that the ability of residents of those countries to migrate to more prosperous countries would allow them to escape “… possible humanitarian catastrophes.” He concluded that “if we are altering the climate, we need to adapt to that, and migration, moving from the areas most damaged by environmental change to the areas most favored by it, is one of the most powerful instruments of adaption available.” Open borders would provide a means for people to escape Third World countries like Bangladesh and island nations in the Pacific which are likely to be negatively affected by global warming. In this post I will examine additional aspects of the relationship between climate change and open borders.
First, the ability to emigrate from advanced countries may be important in the future if climate change severely impacts those countries. In a previous post I observed that open borders would be beneficial to citizens of advanced countries by allowing them to access opportunities outside of their home countries. This availability to move to other countries would be especially important in certain climate change scenarios. In the book American Exodus, Giles Slade states that severe droughts, heat waves, forest fires, superstorms, and other adverse weather events associated with climate change will lead to many lost lives and expensive damages in the U.S. (A recently released report also discusses the negative impact of climate change on the American economy. ) He predicts that “… as America’s Southwest dehydrates and its northeastern shorelines erode… many more human migrants will seek out cooler climes and higher ground. Canada, of course, is the obvious destination for Americans suffering from the increasingly ‘hot, flat and crowded’ conditions of the United States in the 21st century.” (p. 221) While the book hints that areas of the Pacific Northwest and Alaska could serve as refuges for Americans in this scenario, open borders would provide Americans another sanctuary in Canada. Open borders also might be essential to residents of other advanced countries who might be threatened by climate change, such as those living in southern Europe and Australia.
Second, climate change can drive migration, but migration from developing countries to developed ones also might drive climate change. Vipul has noted that some argue that “if open borders prevailed, many people would migrate to the developed world, and their resource consumption would increase dramatically… It could exacerbate problems of resource scarcity as well as global warming.” This argument that open borders would accelerate global warning needs to be thoroughly addressed.
One response to the argument is that it is unjust to have a de facto policy of keeping would-be migrants poor by preventing them from moving to an advanced country. The Immigration Policy Center observes that “blaming immigrants for climate change suggests that less-developed countries should stay that way… Based on this logic, unauthorized immigration isn’t the problem, increased wealth and international development are.” In an effort to combat global warming, should there be a global campaign to keep the residents of developing nations poor and to impoverish residents of advanced countries? If this idea is outrageous, how is it acceptable to single out a specific group, residents from poor countries wishing to migrate to advanced ones, for such treatment?
Another possible response to the argument is that, as Nathan points out in his post, since some regions could benefit from global warming and so long as the world has open borders, people can adapt to the accelerated warming caused by migration through further migration, like the idea of Americans emigrating to Canada. Klaus Desmet and Esteban Rossi-Hansberg, who have researched the economic impact of global warming, write that even in extreme scenarios of climate change, “… the overall welfare effect of climate change is negligible. Although agricultural productivity declines in some places, it increases in others. As long as the world can trade and people can move, the impact is minimal.” However, they note that in “very extreme” scenarios, “things could turn disastrous… welfare would decline precipitously.”
So could we have open borders without the risk that the world could warm up too much? Apparently, yes. Jared Diamond, professor of geography at UCLA, highlights the current different environmental impacts between those in advanced and developing countries and the implications of higher levels of consumption by individuals residing in poorer countries. He states that “the average rates at which people consume resources like oil and metals, and produce wastes like plastics and greenhouse gases, are about 32 times higher in North America, Western Europe, Japan and Australia than they are in the developing world. That factor of 32 has big consequences.” He also notes that “what really matters is total world consumption, the sum of all local consumptions, which is the product of local population times the local per capita consumption rate.” Not surprisingly, “people who consume little want to enjoy the high consumption lifestyle. Governments of developing countries make an increase in living standards a primary goal of national policy. And tens of millions of people in the developing world seek the first-world lifestyle on their own, by emigrating, especially to the United States and Western Europe, Japan and Australia. Each such transfer of a person to a high-consumption country raises world consumption rates, even though most immigrants don’t succeed immediately in multiplying their consumption by 32… if the whole developing world were suddenly to catch up, world rates would increase elevenfold. It would be as if the world population ballooned to 72 billion people.”
However, Mr. Diamond apparently does not promote restricting migration as a solution. Instead he sees the solution residing in the more intelligent use of resources. He states that “we could have a stable outcome in which all countries converge on consumption rates considerably below the current highest levels… whether we get there willingly or not, we shall soon have lower consumption rates, because our present rates are unsustainable. Real sacrifice wouldn’t be required, however, because living standards are not tightly coupled to consumption rates. Much American consumption is wasteful and contributes little or nothing to quality of life. For example, per capita oil consumption in Western Europe is about half of ours, yet Western Europe’s standard of living is higher by any reasonable criterion…” He notes fisheries and forests could be managed sustainably, though most are not. He predicts that “within most of our lifetimes we’ll be consuming less than we do now” and “per capita consumption rates in many developing countries will one day be more nearly equal to ours. These are desirable trends, not horrible prospects. In fact, we already know how to encourage the trends… I am cautiously optimistic. The world has serious consumption problems, but we can solve them if we choose to do so.”
Similarly, an article on the website for the Center for American Progress notes that “for years, anti-immigrant groups have waved the green flag to push a xenophobic agenda… And while there is a relationship between population growth and environmental destruction, it is a complex one. Environmental impact is determined not just by our numbers, but by how we use our resources—our systems of production and consumption and the policies that shape them… it’s crucial to reduce consumption in the affluent countries, by, for example, investing in mass transit and ‘green’ urban planning that can reduce the environmental impact (and greenhouse gas emissions) of large, growing cities.”
Increased immigration could actually reduce consumption rates in host countries. Vipul posits that the increased population density that open borders would create in advanced countries with relatively low density, such as the U.S. and Canada, could reduce the per capita carbon footprint in those countries. For example, the enlargement of municipalities through immigration could make mass transit feasible where it wasn’t before. This difference in population density may explain why the U.S. economy is more carbon-intensive than that of Western Europe. Increased density could mitigate the increased carbon footprint from larger migration flows.
In conclusion, open borders could be important for people in both advanced and developing countries to escape the negative consequences of climate change. At the same time, fears of accelerated climate change due to increased migration shouldn’t undermine open borders; rather than fighting an unjust campaign to keep those in the developing world poor, advanced countries must focus on how resources are used.