Sunday, December 5, 2010





Suddenly, there may be a solid link between two of the greatest American political debates of the past decade – illegal immigration and climate change.

Until now, the only connections between these two hyper-contentious policy quarrels have been political: The same people who believe global warming is a major threat to America and mankind also tend to be at least somewhat sympathetic to illegal immigrants and often favor affording them some kind of path to legal status and eventual citizenship.

On the other side, the interests and people most skeptical of climate change frequently also advocate taking the harshest measures against illegals.

Oklahoma’s Republican U.S. Sen. James Inhofe, the Senate’s leading global warming skeptic, is a prime example of the latter. He has often contended there is no solid scientific evidence of climate change caused by human activity. At the same time, he’s spoken out in favor of the draconian Arizona law designed to drive illegal immigrants from that state (now held up by federal courts) and against any form of amnesty or any path to citizenship for illegals, no matter how convoluted or difficult.

But a new study published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences appears to establish a coming (and possibly a present) link between global warming and illegal immigration from Mexico, one that puts stances like those taken by Inhofe into conflict.

In short, says the study ( led by atmospheric science Prof. Michael Oppenheimer of Princeton University and co-authored by scientists from China’s Shanghai University and the U.S. Treasury Department, the more global warming dries out farms and water supplies in Mexico, the more Mexicans will head to this country.

The Oppenheimer study predicts anywhere between 1.4 million and 6.7 million current Mexican farmers and farm workers will emigrate north between now and 2080 solely because their farmlands become too parched to produce. That would amount to between 2 percent and 10 percent of all Mexican nationals aged 18 to 65 who now work in farming. The exact number, the study says, depends on the degree of warming to come. This is the first study attempting to connect climate change to immigration while carefully excluding other possible factors that might make farmers leave their homes, such as changes in Mexican government agricultural subsidies, altered farming techniques or a potential American guest worker program.

The study concludes there will be “a significant effect of climate-driven changes in crop yields on the rate of emigration to the United States.”

In short, the more climate change is mitigated, the fewer Mexicans will try to cross the U.S. border illegally. And the more warming occurs, the more Mexicans will try to come here.

Not surprisingly when fundamental beliefs come into conflict as they do here for global warming doubters who also strongly oppose illegal immigration, the first response has been to call new the evidence questioning their beliefs “junk science.”

“Silly science,” snorted Roger Pielke Jr., a professor of environmental science at the University of Colorado. Added fellow skeptic Barry Smit of the Canadian University of Guelph in Ontario, “I wouldn’t take those numbers to the bank.” They rely on “heroic assumptions,” he said, among them the presumption that current economic and political situations in the U.S. and Mexico won’t change for several decades.

But Oppenheimer defends the study and its conclusions, saying he and his fellow authors relied in large part on “empirical evidence about response to past climate changes.”

Another implication also might confound many climate change skeptics who also decry illegal immigration: If climate change will likely drive millions to come here illegally or not, over the next several decades, the changes that have already occurred have likely been at least partly responsible for the wave of immigration of the 1990s and early 2000s, which has waned in recent years due to the American recession and the worsened job prospects it has brought. There is no denying that especially in Mexican states like Chihuahua and Sonora, drought has driven hundreds of farmers out of business, with many of them and their workers heading north.

Of course, if there is no climate change, warming would not be an immigration factor, now or in the future. But there is no arguing with the fact that northern Mexico has suffered a drought over the past decade, a period when average yearly temperatures there have risen by more than a degree.

The bottom line: Those who fight measures to mitigate global warming are probably also helping drive illegal immigration, even if they can’t stand to admit it.


Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

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