Hot on the move

UC Davis hosts a conference on climate change and immigration

Climate change will disproportionately affect agriculture in least developed countries, resulting in migration for many people.

Climate change will disproportionately affect agriculture in least developed countries, resulting in migration for many people.

Immigration is a perennial hot topic. But it’s going to get even hotter—especially as climate change begins to accelerate its impact on agriculture.

This was the major point in UC Davis professor Philip Martin’s keynote address to the second annual University of California International Migration Conference, held on the university’s campus last week. Martin, a professor of agricultural and resource economics, is also the chairman of the Comparative Immigration and Integration Program at UC Davis.

His presentation, “Climate Change, Agricultural Development, and Migration,” provided an interdisciplinary look at the ways global climate change will affect agriculture, particularly in the world’s poorest nations, and accelerate out-migration from those locations.

The effects of climate change will be felt unevenly across the planet, Martin said, with the damage falling disproportionately on tropical regions and areas with large numbers of poor people.

“Rice production will go down in Bangladesh,” he said, “while wheat production in Canada will go up.”

There are three avenues of response to climate change. The first is prevention, which Martin noted is the main area that has been explored so far among developed countries, through efforts such as reducing the output of greenhouse gases through more efficient technologies and economic models like cap-and-trade programs.

“Most of the argument is about money,” Martin said. Among developed nations, he said, “The policy question is how much reduced consumption is necessary for a benefit to accrue.”

Another response is adaptation, which would include such approaches as better flood-control measures, changes in agricultural techniques and drought-resistant seeds.

But finally, when climate change—which Martin defined as “sustained changes in temperature and precipitation”—becomes unmanageable, people will opt for the third response: They will migrate to more livable areas.

This raises an ethical question, Martin said. The countries that contribute the least in greenhouse gases will be the ones most affected by climate change.

“The poor didn’t cause climate change, but are suffering the most for it. What aid should they get?”

He noted that only 40 percent of the world population works in agriculture, but three-quarters of the people who do farm work are impoverished. It’s also quite easy to see a correlation: When more than 50 percent of a nation’s workforce is working in agriculture, it’s a poor country; when less than 5 percent of workers are in agriculture, it’s a rich country. In wealthy, developed countries, such as the United States, agriculture is subsidized as a government policy and farmers tend to be both older and richer. In less developed nations, farmers are younger, poorer and taxed, leading to a constant migration from rural to urban areas as people seek better opportunities.

“Climate change will affect agriculture,” he said, noting that increases in frequency and severity of droughts and flooding will reduce productivity, and that there will be more competition for usable land.

But these are just some of the factors involved. Martin pointed to the increased consumption of meat, which leads to deforestation, as a contributor to climate change, as well as the recent move toward agriculture for biofuels rather than for food. Agriculture can sequester carbon, slowing the production of greenhouse gases.

Ultimately, Martin did make some predictions.

“Food prices will go up,” he said. “There will be faster out-migration from least developed countries, because agriculture displacement will be greater than the creation of new agriculture jobs. And the resource-dependent poor will be the most vulnerable.”

Martin concluded with an analogy to U.S. policy for workers displaced by outsourcing. He noted that such workers typically get additional unemployment benefits, as well as additional assistance with finding new employment.

The question for immigration, he said, is this: “Should we have the same policies for all migrants, or special policies for those migrants displaced by climate change?”