Climate Change, Inequality, and Immigration: How Do We Square the Circle?

by Reihan Salam

Allow me to zoom out from tonight’s Democratic Party presidential debate for a moment. If I had to identify the two issues that left-of-center American intellectuals care about most, I’d probably choose rising economic inequality in the United States and the threat posed by anthropogenic climate change. There are other issues that energize and anger the liberal intelligentsia, to be sure, but I think it’s fair to say that the concentration of wealth and income and the prospect of rapid global warming, mass extinction, and rising sea levels are matters that the left takes to be of near-cosmic significance. It thus occurs to me that there’s some irony to the left’s almost equally passionate commitment to increasing immigration levels.

To be sure, only 20 percent of self-identified Democrats favor increasing immigration levels. There are at least two Democratic presidential candidates, Bernie Sanders and Jim Webb, who’ve at one point or another sounded a skeptical note on dramatically increasing immigration levels. But I’d venture that among large Democratic donors, policy scholars, senior bureaucrats, and cultural mandarins who constitute the Democratic elite, support for high immigration levels is near-universal. This is despite the fact that virtually all immigrants to the U.S. come from countries where per capita carbon emissions are far lower than the U.S. level. By way of comparison, the average American was responsible for 17 metric tons of carbon emissions in 2011. Per capita carbon emissions in neighboring Mexico that same year were a mere 3.9, and the rate for India was an even lower 1.7, or one-tenth of the U.S. level. When an Indian moves to the United States, she earns a much higher income, and her productivity is likely to go up as well. Yet it is also true that she will lead a far more carbon-intensive lifestyle. One could argue that this is of no concern, as what really matters most is that moving to the United States will allow this Indian immigrant to better her life, regardless of the consequences for the climate. This view strikes me as reasonable enough. But of course something like this view would also tell us that there is nothing objectionable about India making greater use of its coal resources to raise the standard of living for the billion or so Indians who won’t or can’t make that same journey themselves. Even if the U.S. were to halve its per capita carbon emissions from 2011 levels, we’d still be emitting far more carbon per capita than, say, the British. So what matters more — the climate crisis or the (supposed) moral imperative of greater international labor mobility? If you take the climate crisis seriously, I’m afraid you might have to conclude that the United States should immediately close its borders, to prevent foreigners from being seduced into our gas-guzzling ways. 

And to the extent that one cares about domestic economic inequality, it is worth noting that less-skilled immigration is associated with quite substantial increases in 90/10 and 90/50 income inequality (that is, it appears to increase the gap between the 90th and 10th income percentiles as well as the 90th and the 50th), according to a recent study by the social scientists Ping Xu, James C. Garand, and Ling Zhu. (High-skilled immigration, interestingly, appears to reduce 90/50 income inequality.) One could square this particular circle by disavowing any interest in domestic economic inequality, and instead focusing solely on global economic inequality. Yet such a focus would lead to an entirely different set of policy priorities, as it is not at all clear why a government focused on reducing global economic inequality would devote vast sums of taxpayer dollars to, say, Medicaid instead of channeling these resources towards low-cost, high-impact interventions in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and other impoverished regions.  

Am I suggesting that the worldview of many of America’s left-liberal intellectuals is less-than-totally-coherent? Perish the thought. I’m sure I just haven’t thought about these questions hard enough. 

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