Climate migrants are people displaced by events such as rising sea levels, droughts, hurricanes and wildfires. In the United States, climate migrants include the more than 1 million people whom Hurricane Katrina uprooted from the Gulf Coast in 2005, and the nearly 200,000 people who fled California’s 2018 wildfires. Globally, the World Bank expects 143 million climate migrants by 2050.
Where will all those people go?
The U.S. government has released several intelligence assessments and scientific reports, but the Biden administration will be the first to publicly outline a plan to settle climate migrants, whether from within or abroad. Whatever that plan might be, public support will be crucial. So what do Americans think about climate migration?
In our research, forthcoming at the Journal of Politics, we found that Americans generally support settling climate migrants, although not as much as they support settling refugees fleeing war or persecution. We find no evidence that public support for climate migrants translates to support for climate change mitigation.
Here’s how we did our research
In August and September 2019, we fielded two survey experiments on nationally representative samples of 1,084 and 1,181 Americans recruited through Dynata, a global survey firm.
In the first round, we had each respondent read about several hypothetical migrants. We randomly varied aspects of the migrants’ profiles, including the reason for migrating. Some of these hypothetical migrants were seeking more economic opportunity; others were fleeing drought, flooding or wildfires; and still others were escaping persecution based on their gender, language fluency, occupation, religion, country of origin or physical disabilities. Each respondent read several pairs of hypothetical profiles varying along all these characteristics. We then asked which of the pair of hypothetical migrants they would prefer to have settle in their own community. This method — known as a conjoint experiment — allowed us to determine exactly how much each reason for migrating affected respondents’ opinions.
We then ran a second survey to study whether informing Americans about climate migration affected their attitudes about addressing climate change. We randomly presented respondents with articles on one of three topics. One topic described climate migration, one described climate change in general, and a third described migration in general. Some of the articles discussed only the United States, and others discussed multiple countries. After they had read an article, respondents were asked how much they supported different policies aimed at mitigating climate change.
Climate migrants occupy a distinct space in the American public’s mind
Our respondents saw climate migrants about four percentage points more favorably than economic migrants, those who migrate for better economic opportunities. But they preferred refugees to climate migrants by about three percentage points. That’s significant. Americans prefer a climate migrant to an economic migrant by about as much as they prefer a migrant who speaks English poorly to one who speaks no English. We also tested a variety of migrant origins — within the United States, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Myanmar and Ukraine. People generally favor migrants from other places in the United States, but no matter the origin, respondents always favored climate migrants over economic migrants, and refugees over climate migrants.
We found no evidence that attitudes varied by different climate disasters. Our respondents treated migrants fleeing floods, wildfires or droughts equally, suggesting that Americans see climate disasters as a coherent, common category.
Why do Americans see climate migrants as more deserving than economic migrants, but not as much as refugees? What matters is how much respondents believe the migrants chose to migrate. Respondents see those who move for better jobs or economic opportunity as responsible for their decision to migrate, and therefore less deserving of help, while refugees are victims who need help through no fault of their own. Climate migrants fall in between: They’re fleeing conditions beyond their control, but they haven’t been specifically targeted by persecution or war like refugees.
Support for climate migrants does not translate to support for policies to slow climate change
We were surprised to find that while our respondents supported climate migrants, this support didn’t affect respondents’ attitudes toward climate change itself. Some recent work suggests that when climate migrants settle in a community, more of that community’s residents support efforts to mitigate climate change.
Climate mitigation — pursuing policies to limit climate change — includes actions like reducing carbon emissions. Instead, our findings suggest that most Americans don’t see climate migration and climate change mitigation as directly related. Of course, reading an article online may not affect people in the same way as having neighbors who’ve lost everything to a climate change disaster. But the Biden administration’s executive order suggests that one U.S. response to climate migration might be providing direct help through job training and resettlement assistance to regions affected by climate migration, such as California, Texas and Puerto Rico.
Americans may favor these narrow programs to support climate migrants as climate change leads to more displacement. But increasing climate migration does not make Americans more likely to support broader climate mitigation plans.
Our findings add to a growing literature on how Americans think about migrants, for the first time looking specifically at climate migrants. Experts also know that American attitudes on climate change are hard to shift — and our work shows that even bringing attention to climate migration doesn’t move attitudes on climate change.
Sabrina B. Arias (@sabrinabarias) is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Pennsylvania.
Christopher W. Blair (@Chris_W_Blair) is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Pennsylvania.