That is the argument of a small but vocal faction of the environmental group the Sierra Club, who last week urged the club's 750,000 members to support a ballot calling for a cut in immigrants to the US, which now stands at around 700,000 a year. The ballot failed, but those who supported it are undeterred. "The size and rate of growth of the American population puts enormous stress on the global environment," says Sierra Club club member Dick Schneider, from Oakland, California.
Similar arguments have been put forward elsewhere. Environmentalist Tim Flannery, who is director of the South Australian Museum in Adelaide, has argued that at current consumption levels Australia can only support 7 or 8 million people sustainably, not the 19 million who now live there. This presents a "moral dilemma", he says, when it comes to receiving future immigrants who have been forced to move because of climate change, for example, Pacific islanders flooded by rising sea levels.
"If we take inthese refugees, they immediately up their pollution 100-fold as Australian citizens. So we are making the problem worse," says Flannery. He believes the only solution is for rich countries to drastically reduce their emissions.
Others argue quite differently. They say the developed world's taste for consumption should make them more welcoming to immigrants, not less. Over the next century, millions of people living in coastal areas and small islands in the developing world are likely to become "environmental refugees", losing their homes to rising sea levels, and extreme weather. In a recent letter to Nature, Sujatha Byravan of the Council for Responsible Genetics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Chella Rajan at the Tellus Institute, a think tank in Boston, Massachusetts, argue for a novel version of the "polluter pays" principle. They say the countries responsible should take exiles in proportion to their wasteful ways.
"There's a large discussion going on about climate justice, mostly relating to emissions," Rajan says. "We think it's time to think about the connection between emissions and impacts and start bringing in questions of justice on those fronts." Under their proposal the US, for example, which produced around 30 per cent of global carbon emissions from energy use in the last century, would accept around 30 per cent of exiles .
Arguments on both sides of the debate have their flaws. One of the main criticisms of cutting immigration on environmental grounds is that it does nothing to make the developed world shoulder responsibility for the damage it has caused. "It's anti-environmental to put the onus on immigration, because it's taking the spotlight off the real problem," says Betsy Hartmann, director of the Population and Development programme at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. "The emphasis should be put on reducing our consumption rather than blaming the numbers of people. Americans aren't greedy fools, but they are locked into this system of over-consumption and polluting technologies."
Flannery agrees. "The only sensible solution is to avoid catastrophic climate change," he says. Certainly, if we go on with business as usual there will be dire consequences. The 2001 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment report estimated that if CO2 levels continue to rise, we will see a rise in sea levels of 9 to 88 centimetres by 2100. And that is without the melt of west Antarctica and Greenland, which over the coming centuries could add more than 10 metres to sea levels. And nations that bear little of the blame will suffer the worst consequences.
Robert Nicholls at Southampton University, UK, has modelled the number of extra people who will be flooded as a result of sea-level rise. The estimates vary from a few 100 thousand per year to a few 100 million per year between 2020 and 2100, depending on different assumptions about population growth, economic development and climate sensitivity. The worst-affected areas will be along the densely packed coastlines of south and south-east Asia, and Africa. They will account for 80 per cent of the people flooded. The small island nations of the Caribbean, the Pacific and the Indian Ocean, including Tuvalu, which averages less than a metre above sea level, are in even greater danger.
Despite the uncertainties about how many people will be affected, Byravan and Rajan suggest that threatened communities should be given immigration rights well in advance of real environmental crises. "We don't want to get into a situation where we have millions of boat people looking for place to land," Byravan says.
Andrew Simms at the New Economics Foundation in London welcomes Rajan and Byravan's proposals. "There is something nice and simple about taking refugees in proportion to emissions." But he argues that it may be more complicated than that. Displaced people may not actually want to move to developed countries. People displaced by wars or political strife usually move to the nearest neighbouring country, where their community may already be established. While fears over numbers of asylum seekers and refugees weigh on the political agenda of many rich nations, only a tiny percentage of displaced people actually get there. For example, Iran and Pakistan have accepted by far the greatest number of refugees displaced by the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. And between 1992 and 2001, of 12 million asylum seekers from the developing world, 72 per cent have sought refuge in other developing countries.
"If half the population of Bangladesh has to move, they are going to move to India not West Virginia," says Neil Adger, who studies the economics of adaptation to climate change at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in Norwich, UK.
Indeed, flood-threatened people in Bangladesh are already moving to India, as will those from island nations in the Indian Ocean. For people on the Pacific islands, New Zealand and Australia are the most likely destinations. Tuvalu has already negotiated migration rights for its 9000 inhabitants to move to New Zealand if and when the country becomes uninhabitable.
The coral bedrock which underpins Tuvalu's nine coral atolls is so porous that coastal defences could never save the nation; some experts predict that in two or three decades it will simply cease to exist. Many older citizens say they do not want to move, and Toaripi Lauti, Tuvalu's first prime minister, has pledged to go down with his country.
The extinction of whole sovereign nations is sure to sharpen the legal arguments over who is to blame, and whether the people who lose out are entitled to compensation. This could come in the form of cash, technology to protect against climate change or immigration rights. But to the people at climate change's sharp end, letting the destruction happen is not an option. "Protection of the island and of our biodiversity should be a matter of global concern," Mauritian diplomat Jagdish Koonjul, who chairs the Alliance of Small Island States, told New Scientist. "What are we going to do with the compensation when we have lost everything?"
Author: Anna Gosline
Additional reporting by Rachel Nowak, Melbourne
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THIS ARTICLE APPEARS IN NEW SCIENTIST MAGAZINE ISSUE: 7 MAY 2005