Moving Against Climate Change: How Labor Migration Could Lead to Greater Climate Adaptation

In the APSA Public Scholarship Program, graduate students in political science produce summaries of new research in the American Political Science Review. This piece, written by Dennis Young , covers the new article by Jamie Draper, University of Oxford: “Labor Migration and Climate Change Adaptation.”

As global temperatures continue to rise and natural disasters occur at an unprecedented rate, poor communities in vulnerable areas may be forced to leave their homes to seek out new opportunities. This is especially challenging for those who have historically made their living through agriculture, as they are forced to leave their primary way of generating income. As climate change will continue to destabilize these regions, it is vital that these communities be provided with opportunities and resources to adapt. In his new article, Jamie Draper argues that one potential way to mitigate the effects of climate change may be to encourage labor migration from climate change affected areas to rich countries.

Draper asks if labor migration is a morally and practicably defensible option for addressing climate change. Labor migration refers to workers traveling from one state to another in order to find work and then sending their earnings back to a country of origin. Historically, labor migration has been shown to have benefits for both the sending and receiving countries. Remittances, or wages earned that are sent back to the home country, can help poor communities continue to survive where otherwise they would not have sufficient income. For the receiving country, labor migration can increase the availability of workers.

Labor migration can be helpful in addressing climate change because there is such a strong link between poverty and vulnerability to climate change, and labor migration may be one useful way to provide more resources to poor communities. Furthermore, Draper argues that it may be a particularly affordable way to adapt to climate change. Labor migration requires very little from the receiving countries, and it is generally much cheaper than other strategies such as rebuilding infrastructure. Since the countries that will be receiving migrants are also those that have contributed more to climate change, Draper suggests that they have a moral obligation to provide opportunities to these migrants, who we can expect to help provide for their families back home.

“Migrants would also need to be in a position where they could voluntarily accept the terms offered to them for their labor. If they could not meaningfully refuse, then this would violate the principle of fairness.” However, Draper also argues that there are two major conditions that need to be placed on labor migration in order for it to be effective as a form of climate change adaptation. Firstly, he argues that the labor migration needs to be voluntary for those migrating. To this end, labor migration should not be the only solution in place. Many people, even under the threat of climate change, may not want to leave their homes and would prefer assistance to be able to stay. The other major constraint Draper outlines is one of fairness. Receiving countries would be obligated to provide meaningful work and remuneration for migrants, and not to deflect the costs of migration back onto them. Draper argues that it would be unfair for countries to deflect these costs because receiving countries have contributed more to climate change. Migrants would also need to be in a position where they could voluntarily accept the terms offered to them for their labor. If they could not meaningfully refuse, then this would violate the principle of fairness. Thus, giving the options to migrants would be one way of addressing these issues and leading to a more just outcome.

While there may not be any single solution to climate change, Draper provides a useful way to think about one potential climate change adaptation. And with this type of work, it may be possible to begin to imagine other ways of adapting to our warming climate.

  • Dennis Young is a PhD student at the University of Washington. His dissertation research examines resistance to detention and deportation in the United States, coalitional organizing, and conceptions of freedom in these communities. This research operates at the intersection of American Politics, Political Theory, Public Law, and Race and Ethnicity Politics. In addition to this work he is also working on pieces about determinants of solidarity in protest movements, and the role of law in anti-detention organizing. He holds a B.A. from Whitman College and an M.A. from the University of Washington.
  • Article details: DRAPER, JAMIE. 2021. “Labor Migration and Climate Change Adaptation.”  American Political Science Review, 2021, 1–13.  
  • About the APSA Public Scholarship Program.