REUTERS 07/22/21
By Michael Shank

Accepting those displaced by worsening climate change disasters could shore up workforces and pension plans as national birthrates fall

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

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

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 incentivizing citizens to reverse population declines in an effort to stabilize 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 United States 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 heavy-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 United States 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.

Not only is it the right humanitarian thing to do, but it protects these populations from further vulnerability, destabilization and, potentially, extremism. This approach saves money that might be spent later stabilizing and protecting these communities from conflict or violence.

Second, it begins to address the climate injustices stemming from rich industrialized 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 labor shortages and financial shortfall concerns. Opening borders to populations displaced by climate impacts should be correctly perceived as a stimulus policy that begins to offset population decline and boost revenue generation.

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

Scarce resources are going to motivate this rethink sooner than later. Rethinking the American family, for example, should be a whole country effort, with more sustainable birth rates leading to bigger and better opportunities for everyone involved.

It’s okay that younger generations are lowering birth rates. It’s better for each child born as there are more resources available to them. And by pursuing steps above, the economy and workforce are not only protected but more prosperous.

All of these moves are predicated on the understanding that climate change knows no borders. The climate crisis respects no national constructs with sea level rise, heat waves and droughts, worsening storms and floods. Populations imperiled by the crisis also, understandably, see no border when escaping, in search of water or food security, shelter and employment.

We, too, must not see borders in our response to the growing millions of climate refugees, fleeing unsafe environments. We should see them as new citizens, new workforce, new pension planners, new tax bases, new contributors to an economy undercut by declining birthrates.

This is the adaptive, resilient way to approach social, economic and environmental resource scarcity. Not in a defensive, ‘defend-our-borders’ way, which benefits no one, including the bordered-up country. But in a proactive way that welcomes what we need more of: human capital.

These are the migration flows that will characterize the foreseeable future. We have an opportunity to do what’s right socially, with benefits economically and environmentally.

Rather than exhausting ways to incentivize young generations to increase the birth rate, which they’re repeatedly disinclined to do, let’s welcome the generations fleeing climate insecurity as a way of providing security for them and us. A win-win.