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Guilt and Immigration

Do Americans have an obligation to take in as immigrants 27% of the world’s people who will be displaced because of climate change? Michael B. Gerrard, a climate change professor at Columbia Law School, argues that we do. His “Facing flood of refugees: Nations most responsible for climate change must take in displaced” article appears in today’s Dallas Morning News.

Professor Gerrard states that the United States was the source of 27% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions between 1850 and 2011, and that those greenhouse gas emissions are causing the ongoing climate change crisis we are in. As a consequence, America should accept 27% of the perhaps 100 million environmental refugees who will necessarily abandon their home countries by 2050. I reject his argument for the following reasons:

1. The carbon dioxide emissions Professor Gerrard points to are just one symptom of the damage done in recent centuries by too many people consuming too much. Humans have increased from one billion in 1800 to over seven billion today, and world consumption of natural resources has increased more rapidly than population. The United States, along with the rest of the world, has too many people, which generates multiple stresses on natural systems. Skyrocketing greenhouse gases are just one of those stressors. The subsistence farmer who clears rain forest acreage so he can the plant food crops needed to sustain his large family does more damage to the world’s climate than the soccer mom driving her SUV around town.

2. The United States already has too many people for long term sustainability. The emerging food and water problems in the American southwest are one symptom of industrialized man’s drawing down natural resource accounts, such as underground aquifers, more quickly than nature can replenish them. That will eventually stop as nature enforces limits, but America should work to delay the reckoning, not hasten it by deliberately increasing population. The United States will speed and complicate its own painful adjustments if it allows itself to be a dumping ground for other countries’ unwanted people.

3. Americans born today have no moral obligation to make amends for their ancestors’ excessive consumption. My great-grandfather James King Grier was a Confederate soldier who fought to uphold a society and economy based on human slavery, and nothing I can do will erase my ancestor’s unjust actions. Similarly, children fortunate enough to be born today in countries with relatively healthy ecosystems should not be asked to atone for others’ sins. Allowing immigration of environmental refugees, as Professor Gerrard proposes, would be a forced sharing of what is already too scarce – healthy environments.

The United States was strong enough to make the world safer for democracy in World War II. It is not strong enough to protect all the world’s citizens from the effects of decades of over consumption by too many people.


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