Migration and climate change


Migration and climate change are connected in ways that politicians and journalists seem reluctant to acknowledge.

The most obvious connection is the resources that are required to support ever- increasing populations. We still do not hear much about the weight that considerations of resource sustainability plays in decisions that are made about migration. And further, what population can the East coast of Australia sustain given the availability of water, electricity, housing, transport, clean air, and other infrastructure now or in the near future? All those questions are still widely considered to be political in nature and not ecological. Indeed, no Australian political party has made any attempt to numerically define a sustainable population because of well-founded fears of political backlash.

Even radical scientists are on the back foot. In 2014 The Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, an eminent group of scientists that seeks to influence government policy, wrote

‘A sustainable economy is created when governments set limits so that economic activity does not degrade environmental assets, and then promote the economic conditions for business to grow the economy within those limits’ (Blueprint for a Healthy Environment and a Productive Economy, p. 9).

Sounds great but, typically, does not directly tackle the population issue – a tactic that would probably alienate any growth oriented government ministry. Today any results of ecological modelling that deal with different population scenarios does not appear to reach government ears; nor is such data easily available to the public.

We need to face the fact that ecological sustainability is a terminally intractable global problem because of the unsustainably high value placed on economic growth. Currently the only way that economies grow is a direct function of population growth providing more consumers – even despite increasing rates of technological change raising productivity. This is a ‘paradigm problem’ that may take a long time to change, if ever.

The other more immediate connection between migration and climate change is between the fears that people have about high levels of migration and the climate change ‘denialism’ of conservative and extreme right political parties and individual ‘populists’.

If the vote for conservative and extreme right politicians increases because of their anti-migration policies, climate change ‘denialism’ also comes as part of the package. That is, there is a direct link between increasing fears of migration and the institutional denial of climate change. Conservative politicians have a much higher rate of being climate change sceptics and ‘denialists’ than politicians to their left on the political spectrum (e.g. Pauline Hanson, Cory Bernardi, Eric Abetz, Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull). So when conservatives (in Australia including ‘Liberals’) form governments, they resist change towards ecological sustainability – mainly because it will cost money and higher taxes to achieve.

That is not to say that in a country like Australia left and liberal left politicians are much more likely to pursue sustainabity in concrete terms – just consider Labor’s track record on land clearing, coal mining, support for the sustainable energy sector, climate change policy (in particular targets for carbon emissions), and so on. This is not a party overly concerned with ecological values. Just like the Liberal Party and other right-wingers, for the Australian Labor Party it’s really all about ‘jobs and growth’.

Green parties may sound like voices in the wilderness, but they too are caught in the same trap – how can you be pro-migration and pro-economic growth without promoting population growth? And consequently discussion of sustainability can only proceed by avoiding the hardest question for sustainable ecology: what is the carrying capacity of any land, anywhere, and how might that be assessed? And when Green parties are controlled by a socialist left agenda (as in the case of The Greens NSW) the contradictions become even more profound: add invisible controlling hierarchies quietly promoting the interests of trade unions to the list. Then party concerns become determinedly human-centred; green becomes very grey.

Generally speaking, on the left side of politics it’s about increasing migration with some ideological consideration of climate change, and on the right it’s about opposing migration and refusing climate change as a policy area. The environment is just caught in the middle; it falls through the cracks. Because ‘jobs and growth’ currently require ever-greater rates of fossil fuel consumption, environmental pollution, and degradation (including land clearing) the environment and the viability of wild species remain periphertal considerations.

But everything is connected. Without environmental protection, ‘jobs and growth’ will become a hollow joke. If climate change is not allowed to define major parameters in all political policy, humanity will decline; there’s nothing surer. These are connections that most politicians and journalists are too scared to make. They could lose their jobs - and their fixed beliefs. It’s probably all too hard.

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