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Immigration Reform & Climate Change: Two Hot-Button Issues Intersect

by Michelle Wucker

Friday, March 19th, 2010

Editor's note: Public Agenda occasionally posts guest blogs to offer different perspectives on difficult problems. Readers of this blog know that immigration and the choices we face on energy and climate change are two of the public policy issues we monitor closely here at Public Agenda. Today, we have a guest posting on our blog, from Michele Wucker of the World Policy Institute, who talks about the way that these two issues may intersect – which makes it all the more important that citizens grapple with the options we have in crafting public policy solutions.


Within days of the earthquake that destroyed Port-au-Prince and cost over 200,000 lives, the United States granted temporary protected status (TPS) to Haitian undocumented immigrants living in the United States before January 12, 2010. It was the right thing to do after a natural disaster caused by an act of God. Yet it stood in stark contrast to the failure of the United States to use our migration policy to help Haitians in 2008 after a series of natural disasters that were arguably man-made: a series of storms made increasingly more frequent and violent by rising sea levels and temperatures caused by greenhouse gas emissions.

Haiti has contributed the tiniest portion of greenhouse gases yet has experienced the brunt of climate-change induced storms. In less than a month in late Summer 2008, a series of storms -- Tropical Storm Fay and Hurricanes Gustav, Hanna and Ike -- decimated Haitian agriculture and killed hundreds of people. It would have made sense to follow the example set after Hurricane Mitch in 1998, when the United States granted TPS to Nicaraguans and Hondurans already living here. But immigration policy has long discriminated against Haitians in many ways, so it was not to be.

The number of climate change refugees – as those displaced by environmental disasters caused by greenhouse gas emissions are now called—is projected to rise dramatically around the world in coming years. The number varies wildly, in part due to whether to include temporary or permanent migrants. In some cases, people may only have to leave their homes temporarily; in others, entire families and communities must relocate permanently.

It is increasingly urgent to create a way for countries to carry their fair share of the burden caused by climate-induced natural disasters which displace people from their homes and destroy livelihoods. The countries that have produced the most greenhouse gases, creating the problem, have a moral responsibility to help.

As Devin Stewart of the Carnegie Council put it at a recent conference on the ethics of migration at Sofia University in Japan, "The central moral problem surrounding climate change is that the countries least responsible for the problem will suffer the greatest." Even in Japan, with its famously restrictive immigration policy, conference participants were sympathetic to the idea of increasing admissions of climate change migrants. Similarly, a recent German Marshall Fund study of U.S. and European attitudes toward immigration found significant public support for the idea.

With numbers projected in the tens of millions – with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicting 150 million environmental refugees by 2050 and the International Organization for Migration even more -- no one country can solve the problem alone. The question of where these people will go is not a small one. Some of the countries that are the biggest emitters, like the United States, already are home to significant numbers of migrants who have come for other reasons. China is a large polluter but also is vulnerable to climate change which generates migration of its own. When possible, migrants are most likely to seek alternatives within their own countries; in countries that also are experiencing ethnic strife, or are overcrowded, that may not always be realistic.

As one of the main carbon emitters, the United States should show leadership in finding answers for climate change refugees through migration and development policies, as well as in working harder to reduce our own emissions.

First, Washington should create a new visa category for migrants from areas vulnerable to climate change. To avoid unmanageable flows, this category should apply to people who migrate before disasters happen, as has been done with TPS. As the disparity between Hurricane Mitch and the 2008 Haitian hurricanes made painfully clear, we also need to create standards for issuing these visas fairly and equitably.

Allocating some of the responsibilities by region makes sense. The United States should focus on potential climate change refugees from Latin America, which include not just those in the path of hurricanes but also those affected by droughts, rising sea levels, changing mountain ecosystems, and falling crop yields.

Major carbon emitters should create a global fund for investing in disaster preparedness, so that when climate-induced incidents happen, the damage is limited. Technical assistance in building codes, disaster response, and sustainable agricultural practices will all be essential.

Countries should contribute to this fund, and offer respective numbers of visas to climate change migrants, in proportion to their own emissions levels. This would be small consolation to those whose homes will be destroyed; but it would be a much needed start.


Michele Wucker is a senior fellow and executive director of the World Policy Institute, a nonpartisan center for global policy analysis and publisher of World Policy Journal. She is the author of books including LOCKOUT: Why America Keeps Getting Immigration Wrong When Our Prosperity Depends on Getting It Right and comments frequently on immigration and international economics.

To learn more about these issues and be a part of the process of building public policy solutions to these problems, Public Agenda recommends our report, A Place To Call Home: What Immigrants Say Now About America; the Citizen's Survival Kit guide to Immigration; the Citizen's Survival Kit guide to Climate Change; and the Choicework Discussion Starter guide on public policy options for responding to the challenges of climate change.



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