Immigration Reform–For the Climate by Bill McKibben

Immigrants come to the U.S. determined to make a new life. So often they’re more open to the kind of changes we’ll need to deal with climate change.

Climate activists with

Climate activists with

For environmentalists, population has long been a problem. Many of the things we do wouldn’t cause so much trouble if there weren’t so many of us. It’s why I wrote a book some years ago called Maybe One: An Argument for Smaller Families. Heck, it’s why I had only one child.

And many of us, I think, long viewed immigration through the lens of population; it was another part of the math problem. I’ve always thought we could afford historical levels of immigration, but I understood why some other environmentalists wanted tougher restrictions. More Americans would mean more people making use of the same piece of land, a piece that was already pretty hard-used.

In recent years, though, the math problem has come to look very different to me. It’s one reason I feel it’s urgent that we get real immigration reform, allowing millions to step out of the shadows and on to a broad path toward citizenship. It will help, not hurt, our environmental efforts, and potentially in deep and powerful ways.

One thing that’s changed is the nature of the ecological problem. Now that global warming is arguably the greatest danger we face, it matters a lot less where people live. Carbon dioxide mixes easily in the atmosphere. It makes no difference whether it comes from Puerto Vallarta or Portland.

It’s true that the typical person from a developing nation would produce more carbon once she adopted an American lifestyle, but she also probably would have fewer children. A December report from the Pew Research Center report showed that birthrates in the U.S. were dropping faster among Mexican American women and women who immigrated from Mexico than among any other group.

This is a trend reflected among all Latinas in the U.S. As an immigrant mother of two from the Dominican Republic told the New York Times: “Before, I probably would have been pressured to have more, [but] living in the United States, I don’t have family members close by to help me, and it takes a village to raise a child. So the feeling is, keep what you have right now.” Her two grandmothers had had a total of 27 children. The carbon math, in other words, may well be a wash.

But there’s a higher math here that matters much more. At this point, there’s no chance we’re going to deal with global warming one household at a time—scientists, policy wonks and economists have concluded it will also require structural change. We may need, for example, things such as a serious tax on carbon; that will require mustering political will to stand up to the fossil fuel industry.

And that’s precisely where white America has fallen short. Election after election, native-born and long-standing citizens pull the lever for climate deniers, for people who want to shut down the Environmental Protection Agency, for the politicians who take huge quantities of cash from the Koch brothers and other oil barons. By contrast, a 2012 report by the Sierra Club and the National Council of La Raza found that Latinos were eager for environmental progress. Seventy-seven percent of Latino voters think climate change is already happening, compared with just 52% of the general population; 92% of Latinos think we have “a moral responsibility to take care of God’s creation here on Earth.”

These numbers reflect, in part, the reality of life for those closer to the bottom of our economy. Latinos are 30% more likely to end up in the hospital for asthma, in part because they often live closer to sources of pollution.

But immigrants, by definition, are full of hope. They’ve come to a new place determined to make a new life, risking much for opportunity. They’re confident that new kinds of prosperity are possible. The future beckons them, and so changes of the kind we’ll need to deal with climate change are easier to conceive.

Republicans think immigrants are a natural fit for their party, and I hope they’re at least partly right—some force needs to help ease the Republicans out of their love affair with ideology and back into a relationship with reality. As commentator Bill O’Reilly put it as he watched Mitt Romney lose despite gaining a huge majority of white votes, “it’s not a traditional America anymore.”

He’s right. And for the environment, that’s good news. We need immigrants to this nation engaged in public life, as soon and as fully as possible. It’s not just the moral thing to do, it’s a key to our future.

Bill McKibben, a professor at Middlebury College, is the author of many books and the founder of He is dedicated to fighting climate disaster.  Source: Los Angeles Times, March 14, 2013.

The U.S.-Canada border.

The U.S.-Canada border.

The U.S.-Mexico border

The U.S.-Mexico border

COUNTERPOINT: Bill McKibben’s Magical Thinking on Immigration, Population Growth, and Climate Change by Leon Kolankiewicz

Bill McKibben, climate activist, author of the landmark book The End of Nature, and founder of the group, is deservedly recognized as one of America’s leading contemporary environmentalists.

Many of these same leading contemporary environmentalists assiduously dodge one of the most important environmental issues of all—population. Overpopulation is considered a politically inconvenient and polarizing distraction. Worse yet, it is entangled (often falsely) in the public imagination with a host of other hot-button issues and even travesties—religion, sex, women’s rights, birth control, abortion, immigration, forced sterilization, China’s one-child policy, and eugenics, just to name a few. Thus, it’s not surprising, but still disappointing, that leading environmentalists and their organizations prefer to duck population.

Not Bill McKibben. He forthrightly acknowledges that, “many of the things we do wouldn’t cause so much trouble if there weren’t so many of us.” After all, it is common sense and simple arithmetic – the more of us there are using up resources and excreting wastes, the greater our aggregate burden on the environment, including the climate.

Even conscientious environmentalists like McKibben inexorably leave behind some ecological and carbon footprint or legacy—if a somewhat smaller one than the average apathetic American.  It goes with the territory called living. And the more we consume to live well, to enjoy a higher standard of living and the quality of life that often but not always goes with it, the deeper and larger the ecological footprint we impose on a beleaguered biosphere.

For years McKibben’s position on population displayed a common sense all too uncommon among the nation’s politically correct environmental establishment. But now he appears to have taken leave of his senses. Inexplicably, in a recent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, he promotes not only amnesty for illegal immigrants but argues more generally that expansive immigration policies —in effect, higher immigration rates—will help America address climate change. He admits this will boost America’s population in a land that is already “pretty hard-used.” And yet, in his magic formula, more people will magically emit less carbon dioxide.

How can that be?  In what McKibben calls “a higher math” and what I call an extraordinary, unfounded leap of faith, he claims that immigrants, particularly Latino immigrants, yearn not just for a higher standard of living—which is, after all, why most of them come to America—but to save the Earth from runaway global warming. He fanaticizes they are more likely to embrace a carbon tax, for instance, and to evince a determination to face down the entrenched fossil fuel industry.

His argument boils down to this: Americans are selfish and short-sighted sinners, and immigrants are the saints who might just save us from our own sinful ways.

On what evidence does McKibben base this feckless faith? His fetching belief that, “immigrants, by definition, are full of hope” and his misplaced confidence in a dubious 2012 survey by the Sierra Club and the National Council of La Raza that claimed, “Latinos were eager for environmental progress.”

The Sierra Club is the same purportedly environmental organization that back in the 1990s abandoned an earlier commitment to U.S. population stabilization to appease open borders advocates. La Raza (“The Race” in Spanish) is the largest national Latino advocacy organization. It has long pushed amnesties and what amounts to open borders—what it thinks of as good for its own ethnic constituency—but with disdain for America’s sovereignty and well-being as a whole, as well as utter disregard for environmental sustainability in general.

In other words, the 2012 report McKibben cites is highly suspect. What appears to be at work is political expediency orchestrated by operatives in the Democratic Party, or “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.” I’ll support amnesty if you support or at least give lip service to climate advocacy.

In a 2008 research paper, I estimated CO2 emissions of the average immigrant (legal and illegal combined) in the U.S. at 18% less than those of the average native-born American.  However, these same immigrants produced four times more CO2 in the U.S. than they would have in their countries of origin. The average Mexican immigrant to the U.S. generated only half the COemissions of the average native born American but three times as much CO2 as the average Mexican who stayed in Mexico. Elevated CO2 emissions of immigrants to the U.S. accounted for about 5% of the total increase in annual worldwide CO2 emissions from 1980 to 2008.

My skepticism about the 2012 Sierra Club-La Raza findings that McKibben says fill him with such hope is informed by three years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Latin America and more than 20 years of marriage to an immigrant Latina, fluency in Spanish, and two decades of personal involvement with the Latino immigrant experience here in the U.S.

The Central Americans I lived and worked with in the Peace Corps were decidedly less concerned about the environment than North Americans. This was not because of any ethical shortcomings on their part but because of the pressing need to make ends meet and an understandable focus on improving their precarious material standard of living. Rather than worrying about the disappearing tropical rainforests of their country, or the nauseating contamination in the river that ran through town (so polluted you could smell it before you saw it), my wife’s family in a Tegucigalpa, Honduras shantytown was more concerned with trying to get a toilet and indoor plumbing to replace their old wooden outhouse. And replacing the old 55-gallon drum out back on which they cooked with firewood with an actual indoor electric stove was a much higher priority than saving polar bears endangered by disappearing Arctic ice from a warming climate. Such lofty concerns were a luxury my in-laws could not afford.

With the noteworthy exception of tiny Costa Rica (which sends few immigrants here) and its vaunted national parks system, not one Latin American country is widely considered a beacon of enlightened environmental policy and management. Are the immigrants who hail from these countries all that different? If so, they haven’t shown it by joining and supporting American environmental advocacy organizations in large numbers. But maybe at least in part this is because they aren’t made to feel welcome in these same groups that avoid the immigration issue so as to not appear unwelcoming to immigrants.

To believe that immigrants and their U.S.-born descendants will display an enlightened environmental ethic and advocacy so strong that it will more than offset the increased environmental burden of their burgeoning numbers is nothing short of preposterous. It is magical thinking on an outrageous scale.

By advocating amnesty and essentially unlimited immigration to any and all comers, Bill McKibben would doom America to population growth with no end in sight, and sacrifice America’s environment and its response to climate change on the altar of political expediency masquerading as “the moral thing to do.”   

Leon Kolankiewicz is a professional environmental scientist and planner who has researched and written extensively about immigration, U.S. population growth, and the environment.

3 responses to “Immigration Reform–For the Climate by Bill McKibben

  1. Cici

    I’ve been an environmentalist since the 80’s. In the 90’s, I lived for a few years in an area that was about 80% recent immigrants and their children. I had no car, an old tape player, and rarely bought clothing. Every household in my apartment building had at least one car, mostly late models, there were huge stereo systems, and a trip to a nearby consumer electronics store was enlightening. While I was there for batteries or audio tapes, immigrants were buying new stereos, huge TVS, etc. In Latina Magazine, a woman told of how her family had brushed their teeth with baking soda as toothpaste was too expensive, but now she could afford $200 shoes and a cleaning lady. Ads in Latina magazine and the Spanish-language edition of Popular Mechanics were revealing – $80 for a coffee maker, for example. I used instant coffee. Ads aren’t an accurate mirror of buying, but major advertisers aren’t stupid about placement, knowing that they’ll pay off in the future.

  2. Cici

    A final point: those of us who are conscientious about conserving resources and greatly limiting pollution are going from DISCOURAGED TO ANGRY at seeing our efforts cancelled out by overpopulation.

  3. Cici

    As if that weren’t bad enough, I had wondered how minimum-wage workers could afford such things, Then I thought, “Oh, silly me, American taxpayers pay for their health care, education for their children, and, in a lot of cases, housing.”

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