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My view: The link between climate change and immigration

By Richard Buck

For the Deseret News

Published: Sunday, Jan. 10 2016 12:00 a.m. MST

FILE - Syrian refugee Rama Al-Teibawi rests her head during a news conference about the transition from Syria to the United States at the office of U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., back left, Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2016, in Paterson, N.J. Seated next to Rama are her parents, Ola Al-Teibawi, right, and Morad Al-Teibawi.

Mitsu Yasukawa/The Record of Bergen County via Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

2015 was a year where immigration and migration took center stage in America. Calls for border walls, a stop to the refugees from Syria, and a temporary ban on Muslim immigration have all been proposed in 2015 and they’ve dominated the headlines.

As America continues its immigration discussion of today, it is also advisable to talk about future migration. Climate change is projected to displace hundreds of millions of individuals within the next hundred years. I am a strong supporter of open borders, but I find common ground with those opposed to large-scale immigration with regards to climate migration. I don’t want people to be forced to leave their homes and neither do those that wanted controlled immigration. If we continue to contribute to climate change, the Syrian refugee crisis will look small in magnitude compared to the migration of the future. The left and right of America should want to prevent that future.

Climate change will alter the habitats of people in a variety of ways to encourage migration. Families living in a coastal town could see their home end up underwater due to rising sea levels. Some small islands are already going underwater, leading to immigration disputes in New Zealand. Climate change also leads to a higher probability of hurricanes, which would wipe out these coastal villages. Cities and towns around the world will have to accept new migrants in larger numbers than they are currently for these people to find homes.

Dryness and heat will also cause migration. A 2010 economics research paper suggested that a 10 percent drop in crop yields in Mexico leads to an additional 2 percent of the Mexican people emigrating. Climate change projections have crop yields in Mexico dropping by possibly 50 percent by 2050 due to rising temperatures and reduced rain fall. The authors took those estimates to project that another 10 percent of the current Mexican population might move to the United States by 2050.

The Middle East could also be headed for climate change based emigration. The former agricultural minister of Iran stated that his country could become uninhabitable due to climate change, leading to a mass migration of people out of Iran.

The next immigration debate should not need to have stakes as high as described previously. Climate change can be mitigated affordably, and this mitigation could help reduce migratory tensions. A tax on greenhouse gases is projected by the World Bank, IMF, and other economic organizations to lightly impact GDP and would mitigate the worst climate scenarios.

Some warming would still happen with a carbon tax and some forced migration will still occur due to warming. However, even if all that was accomplished with a carbon tax was limiting Mexican crop yield declines to 40 percent instead of 50 percent by 2050, economics research predicts that Mexican migration would be reduced by over a million people. Magnitudes like that are worth small costs.

There is no need for wealthy nations to create another immigration crisis and we should protect individuals from being forced to leave their homes. However, the United States and other nations are sowing the seeds for more forced migration by not taking climate change seriously enough. Climate change will force millions to search for a new home, and some of those migrants will be interested in coming to the United States. Considering how poorly the United States has recently handled immigration, and the degree of suffering in forced migration, it seems that this nation would do well to avoid immigration crises. Therefore, the United States should take climate change, and a carbon tax, more seriously.

Richard Buck is a volunteer at Citizens Climate Lobby.

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