Immigration: a vital part of the solution to climate change
By Alex Randall. This post first appeared on the website of the UK migration and climate change coalition
The Green Party in the UK recently came out in support of more open and humane immigration policy. Their stance aims to challenge the growing anti-migrant policies and rhetoric of the other main political parties. However the Green Party’s new position has been attacked by some of their own members, who argue that many party members are concerned that “a high level of net immigration” into the UK makes protecting the environment harder.
There are good reasons that green parties (in any country) should support open and humane immigration policies, beyond the need to challenge the anti migrant rhetoric of the other parties. Green parties and organisaitons must recognies that migration is one the most powerful tools we have for coping with climate change. This is a clear challenge to the greens who support tighter controls on immigration.
1. Migration can increases resilience to the impacts of climate change. Millions of people – mostly in developing countries – have their livelihoods destroyed every year by climate -linked disasters like floods and hurricanes. Many of these areas also have extensive out migration. When a disaster hits, this existing out migration has some positive consequences. When people migrate out of these areas they usually move in order to find work. Most migrants send money home to their families. This flow of money called remittances has become a fairly large part of many economies. It makes up about 10% of the Philippines’ GDP, for example. When a disaster does strike a family with migrant workers abroad will continue to receive a steady flow of remittances, when their own local livelihoods have been destroyed (at least temporarily) by the disaster. Having household members working abroad has become a very important way for some places to increase their ability to survive the immediate aftermath of climate linked disasters. In many places remittances have become informal disaster relief funds. Developed countries have a responsibility to allow this kind of movement. Green parties and organisations should support developed country governments in allowing this kind of movement as it clearly helps vulnerable developing countries cope with climate change impacts.
2. Many people are moving to find work as their livelihoods are degraded by the impacts of climate change. For many people this is the only available way of adapting to climate change. Patterns of seasonal and circular movement are increasingly becoming ways for people to maintain household income as climate change adversely affects their livelihood. For example, farmers – especially in dry-land areas – may move temporarily to find non-farm work during periods of drought. Farmers may also move to other farming areas that are less affected by adverse conditions like water stress, then return if and when conditions improve. Most of this movement is short distance and internal. However, more open immigration policies would allow this movement to become increasingly international if people needed to move further in order to find alternative work.
3. Remittances can also become an important form of climate change adaptation funding. Money sent home by migrants to their families is increasingly being invested in projects and activities that help those families adapt to climate change. This doesn’t mean the money is invested in the kind of mega-projects that we might think of as climate adaptation like building sea defenses. Rather the money is often invested adapting farming practices so that communities can continue farming in hotter or drier conditions. For example remittances have been invested in crop switching, the process of moving from growing one crop to another in response to changing environmental conditions. This usually requires some upfront capital. There are situations where finding this has been made possible the inflow of remittances. Remittances are also increasingly being used for investment in small scale water storage to increase a faming community’s ability to cope with water stress.
Political parties that are worried about the impacts of climate change on the most vulnerable people must recognise that many people are using migration as a way of surviving climate change. Their stance on immigration must reflect this.
Alex Randall works for the Climate Outreach and Information Network running their climate migration project.
Yes, I understand that some of them may come here because of climate change,
BUT – every immigrant from a developing low consuming country migrating to a developed high consuming country will add to its much higher fossil fuel consumption (and other increasingly scarce natural resource consumption as well!) and hence further increase climate change by far more than if they stayed put!
We should be helping them to do better in their own country as much as we possibly can.
Though emissions may be one of the things to increase aren’t most people in the richer countries more worried that an open door immigration policy will result in their own standard of living dropping with lower incomes, poorer working conditions and a poorer living environment. Is that not likely unless before an open door policy, world wide human rights are introduced to prevent free market deregulation and provide as a right a living income for all world wide.
>>To be clear (and to hopefully be clear without putting words in your mouth) here is my case. If we argue that people should not be allowed to move to richer countries because their emissions will increase, we are forcing them to stay in their own country and remain in poverty. This seems to trap millions of people in poverty. – See more at: http://brightgreenscotland.org/index.php/2013/07/immigration-a-vital-part-of-the-solution-to-climate-change/#comments<<
@Peter, my intention really isn’t to put words in your mouth, perhaps I could have phrased it more clearly. As far a I can see the only logical conclusion of the argument is that some people will have to remain trapped in poverty. I’m genuinely open to the possibility that some other conclusion is possible if you can explain it.
To be clear (and to hopefully be clear without putting words in your mouth) here is my case. If we argue that people should not be allowed to move to richer countries because their emissions will increase, we are forcing them to stay in their own country and remain in poverty. This seems to trap millions of people in poverty.
Alex, I’m very disappointed. here’s nothing wrong in occasionally acknowledging you might have got something wrong. Quite the opposite in fact.
With regard to your second paragraph, I would be grateful if you would stop putting words into my mouth.
@Peter, I don’t think either of us have wasted our time. We’ve debated and discussed complex issues, we’re both better people for considering each other’s views even is we don’t agree. But on reflection I just don’t agree with you.
Regarding your point on migrants emissions increasing when they come to the UK: I invite you to follow this argument to it’s logical conclusion. You’re saying that people should stay put, and stay poor. Perhaps you’d prefer that they stay put, but became better off in their own country. In this case their emissions would still go up. Essentially you’re saying that in order to keep emissions down, some people need to carry on living in dire poverty.
@Zach – True.
Just another point on remittances; They are greater than ODA (Official Development Assistance), FDI, and philanthropic giving combined, and by quite a margin (50-100% depending on the estimate). They are also more reliable than any of the other three. whist it feels slightly wrong leaving supporting the most vulnerable abroad to some of the poorest at home and immigration will always be contentious, the fact remains that sharing prosperity and harnessing the power of remittances it a powerful tool, that deserves due consideration.
Alex, you can’t shut down a conversation by dismissing as splitting hairs, so I will, as promised, have another go at getting you to understand the problem with the article’s title. First understand that I’m trying to be helpful here. The credibility of your piece is seriously undermined when given a title which 1. Does not relate to the contents of the article and 2. Is a statement that is actually untrue! A better title would have been something like “Immigration – A Way to Mitigate the Disastrous Effects of Climate Change in Some Countries?”. A bit less punchy I know but at least your readers will have an idea of what to expect. The title “Immigration – A Vital Part of the Solution to Climate Change” is ludicrous for the simple glaring fact that immigration is contributor to climate change! And it isn’t as insignificant as Keshav above tried to imply. With respect to the UK long haul air journeys we were discussing, even the 0.3% figure he came up with is not insignificant. But of course it would be much higher than that, because most migrants leave behind family and friends, creating a whole new swathe of air movements both ways as they start visiting each other.
There are other ways immigration contributes to climate to an even greater degree. The most significant involves economic migrants – people from poorer countries moving to richer ones in search of a better life. There are tens of millions of these, legal and illegal, residing in Europe and North America alone. Irrespective of the positive or negative social aspects of these movements, their consumption levels rise, as does their carbon footprint, I.e. increased greenhouse gas emissions. I could go on but the point is, as always, immigration most assuredly NOT a solution to climate change! The lesson to be learnt here is, never let someone else title your writings. If you are seriously going to maintain that the title is fine after all this then I can see I have wasted a huge amount of my time. If you want me to critique the contents of your article, you need to show me that you have mind that is open to logical argument and stop defending the indefensible. Otherwise these discourses are just pointless.
Thanks for an excellent post Alex.
I think it’s quite simple. The problem of climate change is that it ruins people’s lives and the natural world*. The cause of this problem is the combination of the way we have altered the atmosphere, and the laws of physics.
This problem is a thing happening now because of past emissions. It will happen in the future whatever else we do because of past and present emissions. It also may or may not happen even more in the future depending on the extent to which we emit climate changing emissions (and do other things which change the climate, like cutting down trees, or replanting them, etc).
But the problem is that it ruins human lives and the natural world. There are two ways in which we solve this problem. The first is that we ought to reduce our emissions vastly (and reforest, etc).
But this isn’t sufficient for a very simple reason: past emissions have already caused the climate to change, and will continue to do so for a long time (CO2 stays in the atmosphere for about a century). The result is that people are already having their lives ruined, the natural world is already being depleted of life, etc.
Dealing with this problem is complex. But Alex has laid out, very clearly, three ways in which migration will help. And I think that is helpful.
*there is a hypothetical philosophical belief that the physical processes of the earth, including its climate/weather systems, are what matter morally, rather than the living things on earth. If you subscribe to that, I suppose you might think that altering the climate is intrinsically bad. But I hope we can all agree that this would be an odd moral code.
@ Rob – people migrate for lots of different reasons. Migration is not always forced or a last resort. There is a spectrum ranging from people who have lots of choices and options, through to people who have no choice but to move. You are correct that there are important connections between climate change and migration – but not necessarily correct that this will lead to more migration to the UK. People moving in response to environmental change tend to move short distances within their own countries. And often from rural to urban areas in their own countries. In many cases climate change will “trap” people and prevent them from moving. As people’s livelihoods are degraded, their income falls and moving becomes harder. So the relationship between a warmer world and migration is not simple.
@Peter we seem to disagree only on the following: you think that the word “solutions” should only refer to activities that slow down climate change like carbon reduction or other forms of mitigation. I think “solutions” should encompass adaptation as well. We’re just going to have to disagree on that. I think it would be shame if this thread was jammed up with the two of us splitting hairs on this – there are much bigger issues. You’ve said that you have issues with the content of the article – I’d like to hear them.
Isn’t it true that people only migrate in significant numbers if they have little hope in the near to intermediate future of obtaining a life of reasonable wellbeing for themselves and their family by staying where they are.
I think this is true to migration within this country as well as from outside and is the major flaw in Tebbit’s on your bike rhetoric.
Climate change will if not addressed make it less likely for people to look forward with hope in many non western countries so I agree that climate change will cause frightening rates of migration to this and other northern countries. I do not agree though as others have said that migration will do much to stop or mitigate climate change.
I would like there to be free movement of people through countries but realistically I think it is not possible to persuade the public that this is viable. I think the public may be right even if the benefit system is only applied to citizens of this country which would in any case be immoral and cause more conflict.
I think we need to concentrate first on supporting the rights of asylum seekers and that of all people having sustainable and reasonable wellbeing in their own country. Unregulated capitalism and the military industry benefits from maintaining the current vicious and inhumane system lmv.
When the majority of the peoples of the world do have reasonable wellbeing in their own countries I think borders can be relaxed and hopefully finally dismantled but not until way in the future if we survive climate change.
I am most pleased to meet a fellow climate alarmist and I accept that immigration travel is not a significant contributor to total greenhouse gas emissions. But I still object to it as being described as a vital part of the solution to climate change. That’s clearly rubbish and all Alex needs to do is change the title of his article so it describes the content accurately.
Peter, you’re right, gross migration is more relevant. Gross migration to the UK seems to be around 600,000 (it was 577,000 in 2007: http://www.migrationinformation.org/feature/display.cfm?ID=736). So migration might account for 0.3% of air traffic. That’s still tiny.
I’m happy to identify as a fellow climate alarmist. Travel does contribute to climate change, but immigration is (a) only a tiny part of that and (b) one of the most socially valuable parts (as compared to business trips, holidays, etc.). Yes, we need to drastically reduce the number of flights people take in and out of the UK. But the (relatively few) people who fly here to make a better life for themselves, or to escape poverty and persecution, are among the last people I would want to stop flying. Especially if their homes are underwater and they really really need to move somewhere else.
Peter, part of the solution to climate change has to be helping people affected by it. Millions of people are already using migration as a way of coping with climate linked disasters. Millions more people might potentially use migration as a coping strategy if it were an options for them. My view is that we should support freer movement of people for the same reasons we support better adaptation funding and emissions reductions – because hopefully it will help people who are already struggling to deal with the impacts of climate change.
Keshav, to speak of net migration is totally misleading. I was referring to ALL migration, which I believe is nearer half a million, every year, and that’s just this country! Anyway, the main point I was making was that all this travel is a contributor to climate change, not a solution. And that remains the case.
Happens that I’m what some people call a climate alarmist. As things stand, with fossil fuels still being extracted and burnt relentlessly, with the various feedback mechanisms from arctic radiation reflection, co2release from warming oceans, methane release from the tundras, and so on and so on, the tipping point is getting ever closer. Sadly this isn’t alarmism, it’s real, and when the shit hits the fan the last thing anyone will be thinking about is remittances.
In 2012, net migration to the UK was less than 200,000. In the same year, 221 million passengers travelled through UK airports (http://www.caa.co.uk/application.aspx?appid=7&mode=detail&nid=2217). Even if all immigrants came here by plane, immigration would account for less than 0.1 percent of UK air traffic. So it seems daft to single out immigration as a contributor to climate change.
And Alex’s blog post is excellent. Climate change will probably have very unequal effects, harming some countries much more than others. All the more essential then to defend people’s right to freedom of movement, so they can escape the worst-hit areas and send back remittances to those left behind. (Yes, we should try to stop climate change and mitigate its unequal effects in other ways too.)
The title of this article is totally wrong. The solution to climate is change to stop greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, etc. Immigration involves the movement of millions of people from one country to another and quite obviously contributes to climate change. This is especially true of the huge numbers from countries like the UK to destinations like Australia, New Zealand and North America involving highly destructive long haul flights.
This article refers to immigration occurring as a result of
climate change induced disasters. It is clearly not a vital part of the solution to climate change!
Glad to see this statement from Jenny Jones on the immigration issue http://greenparty.org.uk/news/2013/07/30/jenny-jones-government-has-%E2%80%98taken-leave-of-its-senses%E2%80%99-on-immigration/
Corin, thanks for your comments. You are right that money to assist during and after disasters can (and does) come from international aid and local economic development. But the fact is that some of it does come from remittances. I’m not suggesting that it could in the future – it does at the moment. Economic development may be hampered by repeat disasters, and aid is sometimes slow to arrive and constrained by all kinds of political factors. Remittances are not a panacea, and should not replace aid, disaster relief or local development. But at the moment they are playing an important role in helping people cope with disasters. If we’re concerned about how climate change impacts the poorest people – we must accept that this is one of the ways people are coping, and could continue to cope in the future.
I read this article with interest after following the debate within the Green Party on immigration over the last couple of weeks. I don’t claim any expertise in this area at all, and I don’t think I have a particular axe to grind, but there seem to be some flaws in the reasoning here. I’d be more than happy if people want to correct my reading!
Here are the questions I have about each of the points raised above:
1. Money in areas affected by environmental disasters can be used to increase resilience to climate change. This money could come from remittances, or it could come from local economic development, or it could come from global aid, philanthropy, etc. To link it specifically to remittances from diaspora populations seems odd, to me.
2. To consider negative effects of climate change as inevitable might be realistic, but it is also a bit defeatist. Of course the countries least affected by environmental catastrophes such as flooding should admit refugees from countries more affected, but this doesn’t in itself justify standard economic migration, does it? As Greens, should our first priority not always be to seek to reduce the likelihood of catastrophic, human-induced climate change?
3. This point is linked to the first. Climate change adaptation is important but the money can come from many sources.
In general, much as I agree with the notion of a humane and open migration policy, I am far from convinced that the most ecologically sustainable position is to support the free flow of labour and capital across the world. Rather than lionising this movement should we not be struggling for a better world in every respect in every place?