Is it time for China, US to take in climate migrants?

Friday July 30 2021
Migrants line up to collect food given to them by an NGO in Las Palmas

Migrants line up to collect food given to them by an NGO in Las Palmas, Spain, March 5, 2021. PHOTO | REUTERS


When environmental solutions to the climate crisis come with socioeconomic benefits, it’s a win-win. While these co-benefits are inherent to most climate solutions, they’re not always effectively communicated or efficiently co-ordinated.

Take this problem in need of a solution. Large carbon-emitting countries with declining birthrates – like the United States or China, some of the highest per-capita and per-country greenhouse gas emitters – are incentivising citizens to reverse population declines in an effort to stabilise financial futures, pension plans and workforces.

There’s a solution that checks many developmental boxes, from humanitarian to economic, without simultaneously overburdening the planet.

It’s easier than boosting tax incentives to increase birth rates but requires an attitudinal shift in how we deal with new immigrants, one that we’re going to have to embrace quickly as climate migration flows increase.

Here’s the opportunity. Many of the countries that aren’t encountering the same conundrum facing the US and China, and instead experience an increase in birth rates -- on the African continent and elsewhere -- are the same countries on the frontlines of the climate crisis.

With climate reparations considered as a way to help repair the harm done by heavily emitting developed countries while boosting resilience of less developed frontline communities – the latter of which contributed little to the climate crisis in terms of historical emissions – one form of reparations could include a resettlement plan for populations displaced by the climate crisis.


Rich countries with high-emission histories and declining birth rates – like the US and China – would, as part of this solution, enable a fast track to immigration for populations displaced or imperiled by the climate crisis.

These new immigrants would then become that new workforce and tax base that these countries’ pro-population-increase policies are trying to create, without adding new environmental burdens through unchecked population growth.

Doing so has four benefits. First, it ensures the survival of populations threatened by rising sea levels, deadly heat waves and droughts, worsening storms and floods. This approach saves money that might be spent later stabilising and protecting these communities from conflict or violence.

Second, it begins to address the climate injustices stemming from rich industrialised countries’ historical emissions. While developed countries continue to struggle to raise $100 billion annually to help underdeveloped countries weather the climate crisis, a financial goal yet to be met, there are immediate opportunities for climate reparations in welcoming populations displaced by extreme weather and providing new citizenship and livelihood opportunities in immigrant-receiving countries.

Third, it starts to help with economic concerns in countries with declining birthrates by adding to their population, workforce and tax base. Immigrants bring myriad skillsets, experiences and knowledge which can be adapted for employment in receiving countries to help fill long-term labour shortages and financial shortfall concerns.

Fourth, changing norms around immigration could fundamentally alter the way we think about national family and identity.

All of these moves are predicated on the understanding that climate change knows no borders.

Michael Shank is the communications director for the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance and adjunct faculty at NYU’s Center for Global Affairs.

This article was first published by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.