Matthew E. Kahn


Will poor nations suffer greatly from climate change?

Cover Interview of November 17, 2011

I can certainly imagine that parts of Bangladesh will flood and sea level rise may submerge parts of the nation.  But I would be surprised if such dramatic changes could occur overnight.

Instead, there will be a predictable pattern of which land will be lost.  The owners of this land will suffer an income shock.  Where will the people go?  In a world that allows for international migration, people from a Bangladesh could migrate to Western China or Eastern India.

In 30 years, India and China may have developed to the point where they may be seeking younger, low skill immigrants to take on service jobs similar to those immigrants take up in the U.S. today—a crucial role in the service industry.

Today there is great concern about the possibility of “environmental refugees” moving across borders.  I think that the right way to think about this issue is gains to trade in the international labor market.  Self-interested households will migrate to the areas that offer them jobs and decent wages, and where they will be welcome.

As long as there is sufficient adjustment time to trends induced by climate change (such as sea level rise), there is no reason to think that wars will break out as desperate refugees seek higher ground.