20 Million Environmental Emigres
June 30, 2011 Environment

In Finding Higher Ground: Adaptation in the Age of Warming, the author, Amy Seidl, tells us that:

in 2007 twenty million environmental emigres fled unsuitable environmental conditions in their homelands, outnumbering, for the first time, refugees fleeing from war.

In the endnotes she suggests that she obtained that estimate from this article, but I cannot for the life of me track down that 20 million figure. When I read the figure, I called BS, especially when it was followed by this:

By 2050, it is projected that fifty million to two hundred million climate emigres will exist worldwide.

If we had 20 million in a single year, then over the next 43 years wouldn’t we expect a lot more than 30 million more, even on the conservative end? I am not even sure we have a concept of what an environmental emigre is. Here are some lines from the sourced article:

However, severe environmental damage, whether natural or manmade, can leave populations with little recourse but to move permanently and en-masse. This happened in the 1930s Dust Bowl in the Great Plains of the United States. Below-average rainfall, accompanied by the Great Depression, resulted in the widespread failure of small farms and the migration of about 300,000 “Okies” to California.

Currently, people are beginning to leave some small island nations in the Pacific with low elevations because the islands are suffering high rates of coastal erosion and experiencing rising sea levels. Environmental degradation is also increasingly common in those areas, such as in West Africa and Haiti, where depleted agricultural land can no longer produce crops sustainably and is abandoned.

Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005 and displaced about 1.5 million people (about 30,000 families permanently), illustrates this kind of situation. High rates of poverty, failing infrastructure, and poor governance helped make residents of New Orleans, especially those in the poorest Ninth Ward, vulnerable and compounded the storm’s impact. Likewise, the effects of cyclones in Bangladesh should also be framed within the context of massive poverty, a corrupt government, and lack of development.

Such complexity makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to single out the environmental factors of displacement. In addition, it makes any estimate of the number of current and potential environmentally induced migrants highly contested. Estimates also cannot fully account for future population growth and government policies that could affect the course of climate change.

Folks who have studied the Dust Bowl would have a nit to pick by identifying it in this context. Notice what the underlying causes of these dislocations are: we are led to believe by the undertones in the ecology literature that it is commerce, trade, capitalism and greed (read the rest of the book I refer to above and you will see it explicitly stated). Here’s another thought: how much emigration overall is due to environmental conditions? I cannot tell you how many people have left the Northeast United States, where the impacts of climate change have been minimal, and where environmental conditions are among the most hospitable on the planet, to go to parts of the country where storms are more frequent, drought is an everyday affair, earthquakes are more frequent, and the like. Would these be counted as “negative” environmental emigres? Seriously, if someone moves from Rochester to Phoenix, a far more common move than the other way around, what does this say about people fleeing environmental conditions?

I have another thought, perhaps worthy of its own post. Suppose sea levels continue to rise and that we cannot do anything to offset this (I think there are some zany ideas worth trying). Residents of some major population centers in India, Australia, and small island nations the world over will be forced to relocate slowly as the rising seas alter their ways of living. Would folks who are in favor of doing everything we can to “combat” global warming be in favor of instituting a system of worldwide open borders? It would seem to be a reasonable policy response to a world-wide problem, wouldn’t it?

"5" Comments
  1. Silly economist! When one is on a green/leftie moral crusade facts are just bumps in the road. Don’t let them bog you down or get in the way of your story. 😉

  2. I would also wonder how many Okies left because they were sharecroppers who got kicked off the farm due to FDR’s ag program. I may be wrong on the timing, but I don’t think so. Does economic environment count as a environmental emigree?

  3. Michael, the dust bowl in the Midwest occurred during the depression. FDR and Rexford G. Tugwell were not sophisticated enough to blame bad weather on John Stuart Mill.

    There sure were many Tom Joads who emigrated to Southern California to grow orange groves. When you have a free country, that is what you do. (I am not arguing with Michael here.)

    Think of the people of Fargo this past week, who have undergone much misery. It is unseemly to me for others to advance their cause when such things happen.

    Our political class needs more epistemological humility, and it would be good if the academy would do the same.

  4. I get the arithmetic point, Mike. Imagine, if you can, twenty million people fleeing their ground.

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