What Transformations in Immigration Policy Are Necessary in Light of Climate Change?

Climate change is expected to cause one of the most complex political and ethical problems of our time - the mass migration of millions of people. One of the big unanswered (and largely unasked) questions in climate policy is how states should respond to this looming immigration crisis. 


As greenhouse gasses accumulate in the atmosphere and arctic ice-sheets melt, temperatures and sea levels are set to rise drastically across the globe during the twenty-first century. As coastal lowlands are flooded and arable land is lost to the sun, billions may be forced to undertake climate-induced migration. Norman Myers has estimated that as many as 200 million people will be displaced across the globe by the 2050s, according to Issue 31 of the Forced Migration Review. But there are many other experts in the field who are establishing similar estimations.


The predictions of climate change therefore bring with them a new label to add to the lexicon of immigration policy: the ‘climate refugee.’ Such status is problematic because it has very little standing in existing refugee law - climate change is not mentioned in any key legal conventions providing protections for refugees or asylum seekers. There is thus a danger that, as an unrecognised category of immigrant, climate refugees will fall through the cracks of humanitarian public policy. In the event that international conventions are not changed to incorporate climate refugees, it is essential that states address their immigration policy, in the light of climate change-induced migration, to protect those fleeing environmental disaster. 


Many policy recommendations intended to prevent environmentally induced migration often address such concerns through a ‘polluter pays’ principle. This principle dictates that developed countries are largely those states which have contributed the most to the causation of global warming through their early industrialisation, and developing countries are less able to mitigate or adapt to climate change because they have not benefited from this industrialisation. Hence, developed countries according to this principle have a moral obligation to mitigate the effects of climate change and aid others in their adaptation to it.


Though such obligations can, in part, be fulfilled by providing financial assistance and preventative measures, it is unlikely that this alone will be enough. If needed, aid must also be directed at helping those forced into climate migration by allowing them a right to immigrate. In addition to providing financial aid to those affected by climate change, the ‘polluter pays’ principle would thus be extended and applied to immigration policy. Developed countries would fulfil their moral obligations by granting climate refugees asylum, transforming their immigration policies to allow freer movement.  


Sooner or later, the West will have to make a decision - to pay for walls or to pay for people in need.