At How the World Works, we are particularly fond of tracing the interconnections that link one big, huge, intractable problem with another potentially catastrophic and pratically insolvable dilemma. Thus, we were intrigued at the May 1 communique from carbon offset provider TerraPass, "Immigration and Climate Change: Shifting Emissions." Two great hot-button issues that go awesomely together. What's not to like?
Author Tom Arnold, TerraPass' "Chief Environmental Officer," points out a couple of aspects of the interrelationship between carbon emissions and immigration that haven't been making headlines in the national debate over illegal immigration. As one might expect, they exist in delightful contradiction to each other. If we were to, say, build a fence between the U.S. and Mexico and shoot anyone climbing over it, the price of locally grown produce would probably rise, which would then encourage the importation of such produce from places like Mexico. But that would result in greater transport costs, and, naturally, the associated boost in carbon emissions that would come from importing strawberries to San Francisco from Michoacan instead of Watsonville, Calif.
So, blocking illegal immigration: bad for the environment. Anything that can be done to promote local consumption of locally produced goods should be encouraged. So, in the name of mitigating climate change, bring the labor here.
However, as anyone knows who has followed the divisive struggle in the Sierra Club over the past few years as to whether environmentalists should oppose immigration because of population growth's impact on the environment, greater levels of immigration have also been blamed for environmental degradation. And when you're talking climate change, immigration to the United States could be the worst thing possible for the world. The U.S. is the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, and the more people who come to America in pursuit of what Enron's Ken Lay called on Monday "the American dream ... that very expensive lifestyle," the more we'll go along merrily burning up the world's resources. The last thing the world needs is more Americans.
Arnold's musings aren't the first time the connection between immigration and climate change has been mulled. One year ago, a pair of scientists, Sujatha Byravan and Sudhir Chella Rajan, made a slightly different argument in Nature: Because climate change is likely to be most disruptive to developing nations, in particular those with large populations living near sea level, the rich nations that have been the most responsible for pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere should be required to allow the future immigration of the hundreds of millions of people likely to be displaced from their homes in the next century by rising sea levels.
There is an elegant aspect to the proposition that the United States, responsible for 20 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, be forced to accept 20 percent of the climate-change displaced population, even if Byravan and Rajan's suggestion does have something of a "modest proposal" tone. There's no avoiding the conundrum: The richest, most developed countries that are largely responsible for causing climate change are also the countries with the resources to best adapt to climate change.
You think illegal immigration from Mexico now is a problem? Wait until drought caused by climate change wipes out the mostly rain-fed farms of Mexico and Central America. Pressure to move north will only increase, as millions more risk their lives to reach a land of low fuel economy standards and "voluntary" targets for emission cuts.