We’ll likely have open borders before serious climate change mitigation

The climate change movement is not one that obviously parallels the open borders movement; it’s not a civil rights or social justice issue (except insofar as it might disproportionately harm the world’s poorest — but the same could be said for almost any noteworthy public policy issue) and it has far more clout and attention than migration. But there are three things that I think we have in common:

  1. Political leaders love to make grand statements about how they must and will act on these pressing issues
  2. Political leaders take no meaningful action to address the issue whatsoever (other than very marginal policy changes)
  3. This, in spite of reasonably strong agreement amongst experts in the field who have devoted their lives to the study of the issue that strong action is needed — and that strong action will have large impacts

My Take on Climate Risks

Now as a preamble, I will say that I think climate change is an issue of concern, although I’m not ready to say I’m certain it will be a catastrophe for humanity.  To the extent that it climate change materialises in a dangerous way, then as co-blogger Nathan has argued before, open borders will play a major role in preventing substantial human suffering from the effects of climate change (see too co-blogger Joel’s elaboration on Nathan’s points).

I generally take the majority of scientists who’ve studied the issue at face value, although I am far from certain that their point estimate predictions will be right. I do think that given the very large possible downside of climate change — there is a decent cost-benefit case to be made for taking stronger action on climate change than there has been to date.

However, I am generally reticent about making conclusive declarations regarding exactly how we ought to mitigate climate change. This stems from the reasons why I think governments have generally not acted on the issue. The popular perception is that this is because governments need to be convinced of the science — either that the existing climate science is unsound, or more commonly, governments are being irrationally blind to well-founded scientific analysis.

But either way, we have to decide what to do based on the science we have now — and the real problem we face deciding is that we have a very wide confidence interval. Reasonable estimates of the cost of climate change can vary very widely, depending on how optimistic or pessimistic you are about humans and the biosphere’s capacity to adapt to the predicted changes in temperature.

After all, it could very well turn out that other than losing a few islands and species — which, don’t get me wrong, would be a great loss for knowledge and our bioheritage, but also wouldn’t be that big a problem set against all the other destruction our species has wrought on the world and our own kind — we can adapt fine with minimal socioeconomic cost to the climate changes that materialise. If this is true, then it would almost certainly be an immense waste for us to spend 5% of world GDP every year trying to prevent climate change from happening. If on the other hand, climate change wipes out half of all mankind and halves the habitable land we have on this planet, spending 5% of world GDP annually to prevent this would likely seem a bargain in comparison.

The problem is that even if you put aside all doubts about the science, it is really hard to say with any strong certainty what the costs of the predicted changes in climate will actually turn out to be. Although some climate change activists paint nightmare scenarios where the world’s population falls by over 90%, it’s hard to find scientists making such predictions in published papers.

To take just one example, James Lovelock, probably the most eminent scientist to have staked out a highly worried position on climate change, predicted that by the year 2100, 80% of the human race would have died prematurely due to climate change. This prediction was published not in a scientific journal, but in The Independent and The Guardian — both respected newspapers, but certainly no peer reviewed academic fora. More than that, less than a decade later, Lovelock walked back his claims, calling them alarmist and saying: “The problem is we don’t know what the climate is doing. We thought we knew 20 years ago. That led to some alarmist books – mine included – because it looked clear-cut, but it hasn’t happened.”

Now, to be sure, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere today, and how much there is likely to be decades from now, is relatively easy to estimate. But the consequent global temperature rise is harder to estimate. And on top of that, it’s even harder to predict what effects climate change will have on humanity as a whole. There’s a reason why the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change offers a very wide range of predicted temperature increases, ranging from 2.5 to 7.8C by the year 2100. It is telling that as far as interpreting the impacts of these temperature changes, all the IPCC is willing to say is: “Increasing magnitudes of [global] warming increase the likelihood of severe, pervasive, and irreversible impacts.”

In other words, the hotter the world gets, the worse things are likely to be. How hot will it get exactly, and how much worse will things be? Those are the questions that matter, and yet all we have for answers are a very wide range of possibilities.

What Can Governments Do About Climate Change?

And so while I don’t want to trivialise the adjustment costs of coping with climate change, I can kind of see why it’d be hard for the human race to sign up for a 5% pay cut, in perpetuity (since we’d be choosing not to avail ourselves of an income source, i.e., carbon-based energy sources). To most of humanity, that price likely wouldn’t seem worth it to buy us insurance against the possibility that it will become possible to make wine with grapes grown in New Jersey or against the possibility that the Maldives will disappear (with all due respect to the people of the Maldives).

After all, these are great reasons for wine enthusiasts and the Maldivian people to act, but not for much anyone else. In general, those who have the most to lose from climate change, such as the governments of island nations, have already been spurred to action. It’s the rest of humanity that’s refused to stir. So is our failure to act on climate change really just a rational response to uncertainty?

I can’t rule that out, but here’s another possibility that’s probably occurred to you already: climate change is a global problem stemming from global dynamics — and because the Maldivian government can’t force other countries to change their course, we need some way to coordinate action on climate change. This is a collective action problem, in other words — a central force or actor needs to coordinate the world’s ~200 countries so they all (or at least the largest polluters) reduce their carbon emissions.

An individual government has no rational reason to act — what does the US government or Chinese government care for the people of the Maldives or Tokelau? If for some reason all the world’s governments did agree to reduce emissions, and actually acted on their agreement, what incentive would each of them have to abide by the agreement? After all, if the 199 other countries in the world are all reducing their emissions, it won’t harm the climate for our country to pollute a little more right?

This is exactly why nobody has acted in a serious way yet — if you’re the only country in the world reducing your emissions, you just will never prevent climate change on your own. There is simply no reason for you to harm the health and wealth of your people while the rest of the world happily pollutes its way to (arguably temporary) prosperity. We have the tragedy of the commons writ large.

But even assuming the tragedy of the commons is the problem, if we could assume it away, and tell all the governments of the world what to do, what would we tell them?

The main viable alternatives to carbon energy right now — in that they can actually sustainably provide similar amounts of energy to support current levels of human economic activity — are nuclear and hydroelectric energy. Building new nuclear plants and new dams are both extremely expensive and politically toxic for reasons that are hopefully obvious. Renewable solar and wind energy would require significant government subsidies, and tend to pose problems because of large variation in output (both solar and wind farms will produce very different amounts of energy depending on the weather and season).

So the options our hypothetical world federation faces are:

  • Build more nuclear and/or hydro power plants, and create some of the very catastrophes, risks, and/or displacements that climate change is supposed to cause
  • Invest in very expensive giant batteries to store all the energy from solar plants so it can be used at night
  • Force people to just do fewer things — drive less, eat less, wear less, fly less, use the internet less; anything that uses energy, basically

Even if a government wanted to act on climate change, it would be political suicide for any leader to follow through on one, let alone all of those three things. Even if you solve the collective action problem — let’s imagine away all the problems with world government and pretend we have a world democracy — you haven’t really solved the problem, because all the options available are basically politically impossible in a democracy.

The peoples of the world have democratically rejected the risks of nuclear power and the socioeconomic costs of hydro power. They would clearly rather spend their money on wars or pensions or sanitation instead of giant inefficient batteries. And they have no desire to cut back on their energy-consuming activities in any meaningful way. So you basically need a world dictatorship to have meaningful action on climate change.

This, in short, is why I am so skeptical about the prospects of acting on climate change:

  1. It’s not obvious that it’d be irrational to bet on humanity as a whole being able to adjust to the effects of climate change. Even if climate change costs the human race a reduction in world GDP of 10% for a few decades, accepting these costs still seems like a good deal compared to reducing world GDP by 10% every year forever.
  2. Even if we chose to insure against the risks of climate change rather than betting on us being able to ride out the storm, there is simply no way for us to make this choice collectively.
  3. And if there were a way for us to make this choice collectively, the only options on the table — all of which focus on reducing carbon energy consumption — would require totalitarian measures that are just utterly unrealistic, even ignoring all the philosophical and practical problems with world dictatorship.

Open Borders Matter More to People and Policymakers

On the flipside, all of this is why I’m actually relatively optimistic we’ll be able to get some action on open borders eventually. The real concern is whether we’ll be able to get open borders while it still hugely matters. While political leaders’ stance towards the climate and migration might be superficially similar, the fundamental drivers of political action on these issues are generally different.

First, it’s generally agreed that open borders would be a great thing for humanity as a whole. Hardly anyone denies that border controls which prevent people from peacefully migrating are condemning millions of innocent people to lives of poverty and suffering. It’s generally agreed that even in the worse case scenario, the citizens of developed countries would see little to no negative effect on their labour income. Capital income in the developed world would jump significantly.

If we get the poorest 5 billion people in the world a 50% average increase in their income, even assuming an arbitrary 5% income loss to the richest 1 billion, pulling the trigger on this seems like a no-brainer from the perspective of the human race, if humans could somehow act collectively as a species (which we obviously can’t). As any frequent reader of this blog knows, the actual number-crunchers predict a 50% to 150% boost to the average human’s income from open borders. So the choice for the human race really is a no-brainer.

People sometimes argue open borders isn’t a no-brainer for the human race at all, primarily by painting scenarios where open borders turns out to be a disaster. They worry about crime or terrorism, even though multiple studies show that in most countries, immigrants commit crimes at lower rates than citizens (their children assimilating to citizens’ crime rates). But still, even if migrants did turn out to have a higher average crime rate it wouldn’t be obvious that it is right to collectively punish millions of innocent people for the crimes of a few.  As a young unmarried male I have all the risk factors for driving recklessly but somehow nobody’s ever had a problem with giving me a driving licence.

More far-fetched, some conjecture that scientific progress will slow down because of some hypothesised effect from diluting the average IQs of higher-IQ countries. Pretty soon we get into the realm of scenarios where people argue open borders will cause the state to cease being capable of functioning at all! You can come up with all kinds of scenarios, some bearing a loose connection to reality, and others just based on concocting plausible “well we don’t have clear proof that this couldn’t happen” just so-stories unsupported by any actual evidence. I think if the human race could collectively decide, it would find this line of argumentation rather unpersuasive; there is literally far more evidence that climate change poses more of a threat to humanity than open borders, and there are literally billions of people for whom open borders would be an unabashed gain.

How to Move Open Borders Forward

Of course, the human race can’t collectively decide; only individual governments can, since they are the ones who make our immigration laws. It’s plausible that there’s a collective action problem here, that governments don’t have any reason to act on their own. The problem is that they do. Virtually everyone who has studied it agrees that the immigration policy status quo in their country admits too few of at least certain kinds of immigrants (usually the “high-skilled” kind). You could argue that immigration policy has been tuned to perfectly balance all possible trade-offs, but finding evidence against that claim would be like shooting fish in a barrel.

There is something to be said for collective action making it easier to open the borders. Obviously this is how many federations have opened their provincial or state borders (or rather kept them open, one should say, since the concept of closing borders antedates the foundation of many countries). Collective confederate action is how the European Union opened its borders. A hypothetical democratic world government would be able to balance migration policies such that the right trade-offs could be made, and assure all parties that the mutually beneficial agreement would not collapse. This is what the EU and Schengen zone have done to some extent, by guaranteeing open borders in much of Europe — British pensioners benefit by being able to retire in Spain, and Spanish youth benefit by being able to find jobs in a less sclerotic economy.

But it’s not clear to me that any of this supports the view that some tragedy of the commons exists here. All these things are things that individual governments could have arrived at on their own. Spain and the UK could have ironed out a mutual migration deal by themselves after all, without involving any third parties. While third parties might certainly help, they would generally exist as fora for regional deals to be hashed out — they would exist as institutions to reduce the transaction costs of striking these deals. They wouldn’t need to be governments capable of coercing everyone to adhere to these deals once struck — the deals in many if not most cases are good enough to be self-reinforcing.

I think the main reason why we don’t have open borders — other than general xenophobic prejudice, which is really probably the hugest reason — is that the transaction cost of striking mutually beneficial deals is still really high. This is all the more true when you include in the cost of the deal having to ensure the deal is Pareto-neutral or -improving for every citizen of the more powerful country in the deal.

Put in more concrete terms, there is definitely some arrangement possible whereby some number of Ethiopians greater than the current number permitted are allowed to move to the US for work or play. Perhaps these Ethiopians would have to pay some exit or entry tax to each government — or perhaps their lucrative labour would be subject to a surtax which would be shared by Ethiopia and the US. However way you slice it, there is some way for the human race to come ahead in this deal. And I’m not going to even rule out the possibility that some migration treaty of this kind might be superior to a simple open border policy — if moving to the US leads Ethiopians who drive drunk to cause more property damage than they would have crashing their cars in Ethiopia, it might be better to tax Ethiopians as a group to socially insure against this.

The obvious problem is that striking deals like this is very difficult. It gets even more difficult when you factor existing welfare systems into the equation, and when you consider that it is impossible to fairly actuarially predict a given individual or even a given population’s future income or social costs. Throw in the fact that to be actually Pareto-neutral, you’d have to compensate every old bigot who doesn’t like to see Ethiopian people, and it’s basically impossible to strike such deals, if it wasn’t impossible already.

Optimism and Opportunity

The reasons I’m optimistic we can get things done with open borders are that:

  1. We have some line of sight to striking better deals — keyhole solutions are the obvious example, and we just need to keep iterating on existing ideas, and generating new ones, until we reach a family of policy solutions that governments can adopt to manage the socioeconomic costs of migration (which can be huge — the point of open borders is that the socioeconomic benefits are far huger)
  2. Unlike with climate change, we don’t need to get everything done at once. We can proceed along a slippery slope: open the borders a little, and see what happens. If we get 100,000 refugees more to safety or 100,000 people to jobs that pay them the wage they deserve, and we see none of the catastrophic effects so-often predicted, then we have done humanity a service. If we get one country to cut its carbon emissions even by the amazing number of 10%, we will have accomplished nothing that actually cuts into the effects of climate change.
  3. If we do get unexpectedly large problems from experiments with increased migration (I do not expect a sudden immediate opening of the borders without intermediate steps, for feasibility reasons we just discussed), an extra 100,000 or even 1,000,000 migrants will not be a disaster of any kind for any country, other than perhaps those islands about to be washed away by climate change (in which case, one wonders why any migrant would voluntarily choose to — oh, right, Australia used military force to put them there).

The worst case scenario for open borders is that we have to wait for something like the Schengen zone to materialise worldwide — i.e., wait for most countries to be rich, and watch the borders open up as the transaction costs of striking mutual migration deals falls. Xenophobic prejudice in rejection of the evidence will still weigh heavily on migration policy, labeled as “legitimate concern”, and those few left in poor countries will still be screwed, but most of humanity will again be free to live their lives in the country of their choice. Most people will be rich enough and live in peaceful countries so they won’t be pushed to migrate by poverty or violence. Those who do contemplate migration will be small enough in number and/or resourceful enough to be granted legal permission — though they may have to put up with the occasional loss of liberty when the xenophobic crowd gets too loud.

This world will take decades if not centuries to reach (barring an unpredictable technological advance, such as the Singularity, that renders everything from the climate to migration obsolete), and billions of people will die or suffer in due course. Millions of people will just die trying to migrate — prevented from travelling safely on a plane or boat or bus by the militaries of our democratically-elected governments. Millions more will die as refugees who were unable to flee persecution or war — or economic refugees unable to flee an economy incapable of putting their talents to use. Most of the rest will just be people kept in poverty, prevented from earning the far higher wages they deserve and would be able to earn in those economies that could best use their talents — consigned to a life ranging from crushing poverty and an early death, to just a slightly lower middle class life than they might have been otherwise able to achieve if allowed to.

The immediacy and certainty of migration restrictions — the fact that they ban people right now in this very moment from achieving better lives for themselves — also sets open borders apart from climate change mitigation, predicated on uncertain predictions about possible future suffering. I am not sure I would call this a reason to be more optimistic that we can achieve action on open borders, but it is certainly the reason I fight for open borders.

Every moment our governments fail to strike a deal that can open our borders a little more is a moment millions have suffered for no reason other than our own failure. They have the power to achieve better lives for themselves; they have the legs to flee suffering, and the arms to earn a fair wage. Our governments are the ones who’ve stopped innocent people from bettering their own lot.

Climate vs Migration: Putting Policies in Perspective

If you bet against the scientific establishment on climate change, you have a chance of coming out ahead. I don’t know if I’d bet with you, but it’s not impossible. Academics like Bjorn Lomborg have a point when they argue that it is likely to be unconscionably wrong to stop billions of poor people from industrialising and gaining access to functioning healthcare systems, decent education, and 3 square meals on the table just so we can be certain that we’ve avoided climate change. The best case scenario after all is that climate change turns out to be a relative pinprick: some adjustment costs, but nothing that people can’t do over some reasonable period of time (e.g., sea levels rise, but on a timescale slow enough allowing people to relocate gradually); perhaps scientists have a breakthrough allowing us to cheaply mitigate climate change or at least its effects. This best case scenario might be unlikely but nobody can say it’s impossible.

But I see no comparable argument for migration. The best case scenario is that our status quo, or even more restrictive borders, is just a necessary evil. The people we’re keeping out — most of whom we know are good, blameless people just born into a life of poverty or suffering nobody would willingly choose — have to be kept out by any means necessary, even if it means murdering them, because the alternative is just even worse.  There is no better scenario; we just have to kill some innocent people because the alternative is even worse.

Only a few days ago, a minor political tempest stirred when a White House spokesperson claimed that climate change poses a bigger threat to most people than terrorism does. Fox News commentator and former US presidential candidate Mike Huckabee mocked this, saying: “I assure you that a beheading is much worse than a sunburn.” In response to these right-wing attacks, left liberal magazine The New Republic cited an intergovernmental study which estimated that currently 400,000 people worldwide die every year as a result of climate change — and that this annual death toll will grow to 600,000 by 2013.

Without wading into that debate, I feel compelled to note that Harvard economist Lant Pritchett also tried to estimate how many people die as a result of border controls. He looked at just one subpopulation in just one country: child mortality in India. Poor people living in poor countries like India don’t have access to basic health services that can easily prevent the bulk of early childhood deaths, because they are prevented from moving to countries that know how to treat diarrhoea. How many children in India die every year because their parents were banned from moving somewhere that provides basic health services? Pritchett:

Amartya Sen has popularized the notion of “missing women” in Asia due to differential death rates and (increasingly) sex-selective abortion. Because the child mortality rate in India is about 100 per 1,000 while it is 8 per 1,000 in the United States, this implies that 92 per 1,000 more Indian children than U.S. children die before age five. This means there are 2.2 million missing Indian children each year. However, while the “missing women” is a standard refrain, I have never heard the term “missing Indians” to describe the results of the child mortality differentials between the rich world and India.

Even as the White House and liberal activists worldwide clamour about the mortal threat of climate change which might kill 600,000 people a year by 2030, we hear hardly anything about how our own governments’ border controls cause millions of deaths every year. An issue that, by one conservative measure of human life, is almost 4 times larger — and it gets zero attention in comparison to climate change! I was originally inspired to write this post thanks to Slate science journalist Eric Holthaus’s thoughts on climate change:

If I had a time machine and could interview the scientists who wrote the 1990 report and ask them where they thought we’d be by now, I’d guess that not a single one of them would have expected we’d have waited this long to address the problem. The warning signs, implications, and solutions were nearly as clear 24 years ago as they are today. Scientists are by and large rational people. They’d likely have assumed that, given such clear and convincing scientific evidence, surely our leaders would have taken action on something as important as the fate of a livable planet, right?

I suspect any open borders advocate familiar with the social science of migration must feel some of Holthaus’s pain and frustration. Both the pitfalls and potential of a more humane, just, and liberal migration policy are well-known. But overwhelmingly, the rational answer still comes out to: full steam ahead with gradual migration liberalisation, heading to open borders unless something really unexpectedly bad happens.

Migration poses social problems, but the set of such problems that an expected doubling of world GDP cannot solve is fairly small — there is little reason to hold back from at least pursuing gradual increases in migration quotas over time, culminating in open borders some years or a couple decades down the road. Yet nobody has done anything about this, other than making empty gestures about refugees before towing them back out to sea when nobody is looking.

I am optimistic that we can move governments to action if we further refine the set of liberal migration policy options they may choose from. There is more to migration policy than just quotas, and there is more to dealing with the burdens of migration than just excluding and deporting as many people as you can. Already we’ve sketched out an outline of the options a state might choose, and there is still so much more left to be done. With a bit more policy ingenuity, and a lot more advocacy, I am hopeful we can close the gap, and get some Pareto-enhancing deals done. The fates of millions — not just millions of our descendants, but millions living and breathing on our planet today — depend on opening our borders.

The image featured at the top of this post is of sculptures in Copenhagen representing “climate refugees”. Photo credit: Xinhua, via China Daily.

John Lee is an administrator of the Open Borders website. Liberal immigration laws are a personal passion for him. See all blog posts by John.


3 thoughts on “We’ll likely have open borders before serious climate change mitigation”

  1. “With a bit more policy ingenuity, and a lot more advocacy, I am hopeful we can close the gap, and get some Pareto-enhancing deals done.”

    That may be overestimating how reasonable people will be when presented with the facts. There are myriad fears to address all at once, which means the pro-liberalization folks need to persuade people that multiple keyhole solutions will be effectively implemented – and to compound the problem, there will be divided interests on some issues, like suffrage. The idea of slippery slopes reinforces the fear/caution about taking the first steps.

    Reassuring people in any one country will be complicated, probably requiring a mix of basic persuasion, a growing set of policy safeguards (that hopefully don’t kill the golden goose), and what you might call mass “exposure therapy.” And even a sustained and fairly clear record of success in the US didn’t stop the hard restrictions in the wake of WWI.

    That’s not to counsel pessimism. Just don’t be blindsided if there are some frustrating challenges and possibly major setbacks despite the large and immediate benefits.

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