Climate change and immigration: the unspoken political connection

by Stan Hirst

The 2019 Canadian federal election is in full swing. The media overflows with headlines, photo ops, emphatic one-liners and the occasional blooper. Politics as usual. Promises, promises. Goodies for everyone, especially the underprivileged, the middle class and for those who voted the wrong way last time around.

At a time when global protest against climate change has reached a new height, especially among youth, political parties on the moderate and left political spectrum are including appropriate promises in their electoral platforms.

The Liberals express commitments to planting two billion trees within a comprehensive plan to conserve forests, agricultural lands, wetlands and coastal areas. Their promise is carbon neutrality by 2050 and tax benefits to industry to encourage manufacture of products with zero emissions. New Democrats promise to reduce Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions by 37% cent reduction from 2017 levels, retrofit all housing stock in Canada by 2050 through low-interest loans, implement low-carbon transit projects, have net carbon-free electricity by 2030 and full non-emitting electricity by 2050. Greens intend to halt all new fossil fuel development projects and have 100 per cent of Canada’s electricity come from renewable sources by 2030.

Conservatives propose to rely on emissions standards, private-sector research, development of green technology and patent and tax credits to shift the emphasis to greener energy technologies. They would scrap all carbon taxes. They believe Canada would have little impact on climate change by reducing emissions at home, so they propose making Canadian oil and gas cleaner to replace dirtier products from other countries (and no, I have no idea how that can be achieved).

The People’s Party of Canada refreshingly states openly that there is no scientific consensus that CO2 from human activity causes dangerous global warming now or will do so in the future. The Party denies any connection between global catastrophes and global warming.

The parties diverge gapingly on immigration policy as well. Liberals would increase immigration levels to 350,000 a year by 2021. Conservatives and the NDP propose immigration levels “consistent with what is in Canada’s best interests”, without defining what that actually means. Greens have no specific immigration targets. The People’s Party would reduce the annual number of immigrants and refugees accepted annually from 350,000 to 100,000 – 150,000, depending on economic circumstances, and would outlaw birth tourism. The chances that any of these intentions will come remotely close to realization are total bupkis.

Unlike the imaginary world of the canvassing politician with its simplistic characterizations and eternal optimizations, the world we’re all living in is complex and interactive. Everything ties into everything else at some point. What the current political contenders neglect to do is to acknowledge that the two big-ticket issues of climate change and population flux through mass immigration are inextricably tied together. None of the parties appears willing to address this fact.

There are currently 70 million forced migrants in the world fleeing wars, hunger, persecution and climate change. The United Nations estimates that there will be between 25 million and 1 billion environmental migrants by 2050. Although there has always been an interdependency between human migrations and climate, the phenomena of extreme weather, rising sea levels and instability brings these relationships to the fore.

Climate change is gradually yet pervasively causing sudden natural disasters which influence the nature and extent of human migrations. Sudden-onset natural disasters like tropical cyclones typically lead to mass displacement, but those affected can often eventually return to their homes. On the other hand, climate-influenced slow-onset disasters like desertification, reduction of soil fertility, coastal erosion and sea-level rise can lead to long-term migrations. Both are caused by climate change but dealing with them requires different adaptation and mitigation strategies.

Population growth, poverty, governance, human security and conflict are all influenced by climate change. For this reason it is hard to estimate how many environmental migrants there are globally. However, forecasts by the UN International Organization for Migration posit that there could be between 25 million to 1 billion environmental migrants by 2050, moving either within their countries or across borders, on a permanent or temporary basis. The most widely cited estimate is 200 million environmental refugees. This figure equals the current estimate of total international migrants worldwide.

The most well documented migrant crisis in the Western world is the Central American mass migration to the United States. Recent studies and reports on the issue highlight the role of climate change as a key factor in this migratory crisis. Average ambient temperatures in Central America have increased by 0.50C since 1950, and current forecasts suggest rises of another 1-2 degrees before 2050. The frequency and intensity of storms, floods and droughts in the region continues to rise and the US Agency for International Development predict that rainfall will decrease just as prolonged droughts increase.

El Salvador is projected to lose 10-28% of its coastline before the end of the century. In the Guatemalan highlands farmers are unable to grow crops on land that has been productive for centuries. Author Jonathan Blitzer of the New Yorker states : “In most of the western highlands the question is no longer whether someone will emigrate, but when.”

The number of asylum seekers from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras to Canada rose by 30% to more than 311,000, in 2018. Of those who made it to Canada, government data shows a significant majority were accepted into the country. On World Refugee Day, June 2018, the UNHCR announced Canada was the world’s most generous country for resettlement in 2018.

Mass migrations caused by ecological crises are not just a Latin American problem. A 2019 study forecasts that, due to global ice-sheet melting, sea level rise could be worse than currently predicted and could result in land losses of 1.8 million km2, impacting critical regions of food production and displacing ~187 million people globally.

A planet that is unstable leads to unstable societies and ensuing violence and insecurity. As certain areas are more affected than others, even in the short term, mass movements occur of people seeking better and more stable alternatives.  Our governance structure should be cognizant of this.




  1. Interesting summary. No one, especially anyone running for office, is addressing the real cause for climate change, immigration, economy, etc, i.e. over-population. For every human we add to this limited planet we increase consumerism, CO2 production, land destruction, etc. This is the real problem (but we must not talk about it).
    To oversimplify the solution to the many problems our dying planet is facing, all we need to do is reduce our population and stop giving incentives to have children. Why is it that we think we are the only species in the entire world that believe we can increase our population indefinitely? Earth’s actual “capacity” is quite irrelevant in light of all the issues we are facing for future survival. Maybe we will solve all the problem we created by becoming extinct. No one on this planet is going to miss us.

  2. Nice summary Stan. We can try to erect walls — or some sensible international agreements regarding the sharing of the uptake of migrants.
    As for Denis Hughes’ comment: Denis, I agree that population pressure is a big problem. Given the way we use fossil fuels for energy, there are too many people. I once did the calculations as to how much CO2 per capita could be absorbed by the planet without increasing the amount in the atmosphere, and it was a small fraction of the CO2 people in the developed world produce, and even less than what people in many developing countries produce.
    So it seems to me that the best strategy at present would be to work on enlarging and developing energy sources that don’t put CO2 (and other GHGs) into the atmosphere, rather than focus on population growth. And there’s a big question whether you can directly control population. The Chinese tried with their one child policy, and I don’t think that worked out very well — and they seem to have abandoned it. It seems to me that the best approach is to reduce the incentives to families — and women especially — that lead to large families. Education and equality of opportunity for women will go a long way.
    I learned recently that the average family size of a family in Mali is seven children. On the family level, that makes sense because Mali is a poor African country and most people are subsistence farmers on very poor soil. The more children available to work the land, the better the chances are for the family to survive. The solution is to work to raise the standard of living there, in many ways, and give people access to tools and other resources so they can increase productivity. That, and try to end climate change, which is leading to desertification all over sub-Saharan Africa. Just calling them “shit hole countries,” as a certain US President once did, and abandoning them I would argue is not in anyone’s long or even medium-term interest.
    The other thing about population growth is that people in places with a high standard of living usually have smaller families — or no children, in some cases. Japan is a good example, where the population has been declining since 2008. If current trends continue, and Japan continues to admit very few migrants, the population will be 70 million in 2060, and 42 million by the end of the century. Demographic tends are similar in many European countries, especially if you discount the effect of in-migration. I don’t think the human species will expand indefinitely — especially if we can figure out how to use the right types of energy and how to share the wealth of this wonderful planet.

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