In recent years, migrants fleeing overpopulation and lack of economic opportunity have been rebranded as “climate refugees” by corporate media looking to justify open borders. But expanding migration will simply fuel continued population growth, leading to greater resource consumption, higher greenhouse gas emissions and worse climate change. It’s a Ponzi scheme perpetuated by falsehoods that’s bound to end badly. Consider one recent example of this rapidly expanding genre, “The Great Climate Migration,” the cover story in last week’s New York Times Magazine, whose own author admits that climate change is a trivial factor in driving global immigration.
by Philip Cafaro
Early in 2019, a year before the world shut its borders completely, Jorge A. knew he had to get out of Guatemala. The land was turning against him. For five years, it almost never rained. Then it did rain, and Jorge rushed his last seeds into the ground. The corn sprouted into healthy green stalks, and there was hope — until, without warning, the river flooded. Jorge waded chest-deep into his fields searching in vain for cobs he could still eat … The odd weather phenomenon that many blame for the suffering here — the drought and sudden storm pattern known as El Niño — is expected to become more frequent as the planet warms. Many semiarid parts of Guatemala will soon be more like a desert …
So begins “The Great Climate Migration,” the lead article in a special issue of the New York Times Magazine devoted to climate change. Its author, ProPublica’s Abrahm Lustgarden, tells compelling stories of farmers, laborers and other workers desperate to flee Central America, its poverty and its danger. It’s an old story. In recent decades, one in six adult Salvadorans have migrated to the United States in search of a better life, or at least cash to send back to their families. So have one in ten Guatemalans.
But many Americans have grown tired of accepting a seemingly endless stream of migrants. Some have begun to connect the dots between mass immigration, relentless population growth and environmental deterioration in the U.S.; and between mass immigration, flooded labor markets and stagnant working-class wages. In a time of increased concerns about economic inequality and ecological unsustainability, old neo-liberal economic arguments that “immigration increases economic growth” are no longer compelling.
Enter a new moral argument for more immigration built around the concept of “climate refugees.” A common version goes like this:
1) Excessive consumption and fossil fuel use in wealthy developed countries, particularly the U.S., has caused climate change.
2) Climate change is creating millions of climate refugees—people who through no fault of their own can no longer live in their home countries—and in the coming decades their ranks could swell into the hundreds of millions.
3) “They” are desperate because of what “we” have done.
Conclusion: Americans, western Europeans and citizens of other developed countries are morally obligated to open their borders to anyone and everyone from the developing world.
Corporations will still get cheap workers and ever more consumers—and common citizens have no moral right to stop them. If they try, that’s selfish, xenophobic, racist, or mindless opposition to benign cultural change.
There are two main problems with this argument, both well-illustrated by the recent article in the Times.
First, very little global immigration is currently driven by climate change and it isn’t clear that this will change much in the future. It might, but so far the evidence isn’t there. Lustgarden’s article is compelling because of the personal stories he tells about individual migrants, but his case for increased immigration depends on seeing them as victims of climate change, rather than just poor peasants living under corrupt governments on dwindling small farm holdings. The justification for calling them climate refugees supposedly comes from a new climate migration model commissioned by the Times to accompany the article, yet running the model actually shows the opposite. As Lustgarden writes:
We focused on changes in Central America and used climate and economic-development data to examine a range of scenarios. Our model projects that migration will rise every year regardless of climate, but that the amount of migration increases substantially as the climate changes. In the most extreme climate scenarios, more than 30 million migrants would head toward the U.S. border over the course of the next 30 years.
Migrants move for many reasons, of course. The model helps us see which migrants are driven primarily by climate, finding that they would make up as much as 5 percent of the total. If governments take modest action to reduce climate emissions, about 680,000 climate migrants might move from Central America and Mexico to the United States between now and 2050. If emissions continue unabated, leading to more extreme warming, that number jumps to more than a million people.
You read that right. According to the Times‘ own model, at most 5% of Central American migration during the next three decades might be driven primarily by climate change. In other words, at least 95% will be driven primarily by other causes.
In all the scenarios the model runs—effective action to limit climate change or lack of effective action, generous development assistance or stinginess—migrants pour out of Central America by the tens of millions. Yet the difference in the numbers of “climate refugees” between a strong climate action scenario and a weak one is only a few hundred thousand people.
The only honest conclusion is that other things besides climate change have been and for the foreseeable future will be driving Central American migration. Yet the front page of the Times Magazine bellows: “As Warming Makes Parts of the Planet Less and Less Livable, an Epic Climate Migration Has Begun.”
What are the main causes of mass migration from Central America: those factors causing 95% or more of the phenomenon? That’s a complex question and it isn’t clear that the Times’ model, designed to focus on climate refugees, has anything useful to say about it. The problems experienced by the individuals profiled in Lustgarden’s article suggest that longstanding government failure is an important factor: rampant crime, corrupt governments, and elites indifferent to the suffering of their fellow citizens. Surely another important factor is rapid population growth in countries that are already overpopulated.
Guatemala, the focus of the article, had 3 million people in 1950; it numbers 18 million people today—a six-fold increase—and continues to grow rapidly as a result of a fertility rate way above replacement level. Guatemala was never going to create enough jobs and economic opportunity for that many people in so short a time. It was always going to hemorrhage young people during the past seven decades (regardless of U.S. foreign policy, regardless of whether you, your father, or your grandfather drove a gas guzzler).
Similarly, there is no reason to think that Guatemala can sustainably support 18 million people, or whatever multiple of 18 million that Guatemalans sleepwalk toward over the rest of the century. As the country’s environment degrades ever more in coming decades and millions more desperate people seek to leave, some will no doubt blame all this on climate change. But this will be only one small part of one very big screw-up: trying to shoehorn too many people into Guatemala and the rest of the world.
So that’s the first problem with the “climate refugee” argument for open borders: very little immigration is driven by climate change. At least for now, it just isn’t accurate to call poor desperate people fleeing failed societies and overpopulated countries climate refugees. Immigration advocates will no doubt continue to do so, to try and shame developed countries into accepting more immigration. But misidentifying the real causes of all that migration pressure could get in the way of actually solving the problems leading to such desperation in the first place.
This illustrates a second problem with the “climate refugee” argument for open borders: it will make climate change worse. For a start, moving hundreds of millions of people from developing to developed countries will increase those people’s greenhouse gas emissions. The evidence for this is clear and unambiguous. People aren’t moving from Guatemala to the U.S., or from Cameroon to France, to remain poor. And as they get richer, they use more resources and create more waste, generating more greenhouse gases.
Allowing developing countries to export their surplus populations takes away important negative incentives they have to curb their population growth. It also can provide positive incentives to continue demographic irresponsibility, as parents hope to benefit from migrant children’s remittances. In addition, claims that developed countries need more immigrants to boost their ageing workforces have made some leaders of high-fertility countries fear ageing and discouraged them from providing the family planning access that women want.
Meanwhile, extra immigration into developed countries means that their populations, too, will continue to increase, in some cases rapidly. This is a tremendous missed opportunity to take advantage of current low fertility levels and painlessly decrease these countries’ exorbitant environmental demands. For both the U.S. and the European Union, increasing mass immigration could boost their populations by hundreds of millions of people over the course of this century and postpone their population stabilization indefinitely.
The net effect of encouraging continued mass migration is to encourage continued global population growth. But the scientific consensus, as summarized in IPCC studies, is very clear: population growth is one of the two main drivers of global climate change. Modeling for the IPCC found that even drastic emissions reductions could only keep warming under 2 degrees C in scenarios with much lower population growth than the UN expects on current trends. We must end population growth if we hope to limit climate change sufficiently to preserve a habitable planet. You know, one where we aren’t generating an endless stream of climate refugees.
The bottom line is that climate change is one very important part of the global environmental degradation caused by too many people making too many demands on the Earth. In response, humanity needs to reduce our demands significantly and quickly. Limiting human numbers must be a part of that response. Doing this justly and responsibly will be challenging. The climate refugee discourse (like the geoengineering discourse) is an invitation to ignore that challenge and to continue business as usual, with a side order of virtue signaling. It’s also a reminder that conservatives don’t have a monopoly on wishful thinking or obfuscation when it comes to climate change.
Costa Rica is undergoing the same climate change impacts as Guatemala–without generating any “climate refugees.” Why? Partly because it has a competent government focused on improving its citizens’ lives, partly because Costa Ricans have chosen to have smaller families than Guatemalans. To learn more, read Family Planning for forests and people – the success story of Costa Rica.
Another recent Times opinion piece making the climate refugee argument for open borders is “Inequity at the Boiling Point: A Quarter of Bangladesh Is Flooded. Millions Have Lost Everything“ by Somini Sengupta and Julfikar Ali Manik (July 30, 2020). Nowhere in the piece do the authors acknowledge Bangladesh is overpopulated and that much of the country is a coastal floodplain unsuited to permanent human settlement. But many readers helpfully remind them in the comments section. Between 1950 and 2015, Bangladesh’s population increased from 46 million to 169 million people.