Opinion: Immigration = Emigration

On August 10, the Boston Globe published the article “US must protect climate migrants” by Marcela Garcia. It provided a timely focus on one of the impacts of climate change that is exceptionally consequential and will become huge in scale, but that receives far too little attention: the phenomenon of climate-induced migration.

Immigration is in the press and in our politics: people from Central and South America coming to our southern border, people from Syria fleeing to neighboring countries and to Europe. We tend to view immigration as something that is being foisted upon us, but what we don’t adequately appreciate is the other side of the coin – emigration. The person we view as an immigrant is also an emigrant – someone who is no longer able to live in their homeland. We attribute all this to political conflict, poverty, declining agricultural productivity, corruption, poor governance, and opportunism. But, if we drill down to the actual root cause, it is most often climate change.

As climate change makes larger and larger parts of the Earth’s surface uninhabitable, the scale of emigration/immigration will become immense. Through no fault of their own, the lives of the emigrants are totally upended. But there are already people living in the locations to which they emigrate, and the impacts on the people of the “host” countries are also immense and profoundly disruptive. Immigrants from Syria now make up over 20% of the population of Lebanon.

National borders may be artificial, but they are also established realities. They are an essential part of the system that enables humanity to manage its affairs (for better or worse) and to defend the interests of local people. But there are many profound things that do not comport with national borders: weather events systems and patterns, ecosystems, traditional ethnic homelands, religious faiths, geological features, … the list goes on. So when conditions make it impossible for people to live where they have been living, those people – understandably – move, possibly in very large numbers, desperately and without regard for political borders. This, too, is a reality.

So, when it comes to climate-induced human migration, we have dueling realities. And as climate change causes this on a dramatically expanding scale – as it will, climate-induced migration will become increasingly impactful. It will become more and more challenging to reconcile the legitimate interests of the “host” populations with the – also legitimate – interests of the emigrating population.

We should see this coming and approach it with heartfelt, empathetic appreciation of the legitimacy of the interests of all involved.