The secret migration

By Gareth Renowden 30/08/2010

Acouple of weeks ago, a comment on carbon footprints and immigration kicked off a brief exchange of views on New Zealand’s vulnerability to climate-forced migration. It’s an interesting subject, worth more attention, and so in this post I’m going to set out how I see NZ’s position in the context of the likely future flows of climate-forced migration.

Let’s start by defining the probable sources of migrants. The first and most obvious are refugees forced to move by climate impacts. The horrendous situation in Pakistan gives some idea of the sheer scale of the problems likely to be faced by some of the world’s most populous and least-wealthy countries. Here’s how the New York Times describes the situation in Pakistan:

Initial estimates for the scale of damages and human suffering for Pakistan’s worst flooding in 80 years, is larger than the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, 2005 Kashmir earthquake, 2008 Cyclone Nargis disaster in Burma and 2010 Haitian earthquake — combined.

Each of the great Asian megadeltas — in Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and China — could face similar problems if the Asian monsoon intensifies further, or if sea level rise picks up pace. The potential for tens of millions of people to be made homeless, to start a desperate search for dry land and food is obvious — but that’s not where New Zealand’s principal vulnerability lies.


The climate refugees that will put pressure on life in NZ will not be desperate people making heroic voyages across the Tasman in leaky boats. Climate impacts in any part of the world will hit the poor hardest, because they have little or no resources available to cushion the blow. There’s a technical term to describe it: they have little adaptive capacity. The people who will ride out the storm — and who may look in New Zealand’s direction — will be the well-off and wealthy, especially those with some sort of relationship with the country.


It’s difficult to get any sort of precise figure for NZ citizens living overseas, but for the sake of argument, let’s assume that there are around half a million expats scattered around the globe. The majority are in Australia, but there will also be sizeable numbers in the UK and USA. Every NZ expat has an absolute right to return home at any time. It’s worth noting that about 20% of NZ residents were born outside New Zealand, and are therefore likely to have ties to at least a few family and friends overseas.


New Zealanders have an automatic right to become resident in Australia, and Australian citizens have the reciprocal ability to set up home in NZ. There are currently 22 million people living in Australia, against 4.37 million in NZ. At present, net migration is from NZ to Aussie, which occasionally stirs up a political reaction in both countries (though usually for different reasons: NZ moans about a brain drain, while Aussies whinge about dole bludgers).


To the expats and Aussies you have to add the legacy of decades of long distance tourism. New Zealand has assiduously built a tourism brand around its “clean green image”, for the last ten years marketing itself as 100% Pure New Zealand. However threadbare that brand may look to those of us on the inside, there is no doubt that to the average visitor, New Zealand appears (as Tourism NZ says) “relatively pristine“. When you’re relating NZ to what remains of the natural environment in the cities of Europe, North America or Asia, it’s not difficult to see why NZ is such a popular destination, and why tourism is such a large part of the NZ economy (employs 1 in 10 people, earns $50m per day). The net result of being a successful tourist destination is that there are millions of well-off people around the world who have a soft spot for Godzone.


We also need to consider the likelihood of increased migration from Pacific Island nations. Auckland is already considered the largest Polynesian city in the world and there’s no doubt that NZ will continue to attract islanders, especially those with families already here. Some increased migration may be forced by climate changes, though the major driver — rising sea levels — is probably not going to be very significant in the near term.


With the interested parties established, let’s look at how the impacts of climate change could play out. Here are a couple of scenarios to consider:

  1. a relatively gradual accumulation of impacts, perhaps with relatively infrequent Pakistan flood-type disasters building awareness in the general population of the risks facing the world, but with no single crisis moment
  2. a “climate crisis” where extreme weather events pile up in such spectacular fashion that the geopolitical situation is irrevocably changed, perhaps spurring a huge effort to geoengineer a solution to warming, or a rapid decarbonisation of the global economy.

In terms of probabilities, I’d suggest that something like scenario one is inevitable — and perhaps now well under way. A “climate crisis” is possible, but we have no real idea of how probable it may be. Too many wild cards in play. But it’s a worst case that needs to be considered.


Whatever happens, the most important factor is how our NZ-aware population perceives climate change. If they think that change is happening and likely to damage their lives, and if NZ is perceived to be a safer haven than their current home, then they may consider a move. If scenario one is playing out, then I think we will begin to see an increase in numbers of returning expatriates, both from Australia and the wider world, because for them the barriers to entry are low. Most will have families and friends to cushion their return, many will have the proceeds of property sales in expensive places to reinvest in New Zealand. One expat based in the UK asked me a year or two ago when he should come home. I suggested he keep a close eye on the Arctic sea ice…

Tasmania provides Australians with a climate refuge — there are already signs that it’s being regarded in that way — but Australian citizens also find it easy to move to and settle in New Zealand. The direct impacts of climate change are expected to be relatively minor in NZ in the medium term, but possibly much more dramatic in Australia — a hot dry continent that’s expected to get hotter and drier. I already know of at least one Aussie family that has relocated to NZ explicitly because they felt it would be a good place to ride out climate change, and you don’t need a very big crystal ball to guess that will become increasingly common if dramatic climate impacts like heatwaves and bush fires continue to make news. I think it’s more or less inevitable that the balance of migration between NZ and Australia will swing back in NZ’s favour as returning expats and Aussie climate migrants begin to outweigh those attracted by Australia’s higher wages and sun-loving lifestyle.

In addition to expats and Aussies, we have to consider the people who have visited NZ, enjoyed themselves, and who might think that living here was preferable to their current home. A good number of current migrants arrive here precisely because they have spent time in the country and enjoyed the experience. For the well-educated and well-off, the barriers to entry are not too onerous. Again, if NZ is perceived to be a good place to be in a time of global weirding it will only increase the country’s attractiveness as a migrant destination. Amongst this group will be some of the world’s most wealthy, who might regard owning a chunk of New Zealand a useful bolt-hole in the event of trouble.

As scenario one proceeds, the changes in migration patterns will be gradual — perhaps almost imperceptible at first. The reasons why people move between countries are many and various, but climate change will become an increasingly significant motivation as time goes by. When it is seen to be driving increases in NZ’s population, I confidently expect immigration will become a political hot potato — because immigration policy often is a flashpoint, as the political career of Winston Peters demonstrates.


What if change is something less than gradual? One special case that needs to be considered is how climate impacts develop in Australia. If they are severe enough to motivate significant numbers of people to relocate to New Zealand, then a whole new dynamic will enter the political relationship between the countries. The ties between Australia and NZ are deep-rooted, and economically important. Australian businesses are deeply involved in the NZ economy — owning all but one High Street bank, for instance.

New Zealand is the smaller, weaker partner in the relationship. What happens when the bigger, more powerful nation across the Tasman starts to value New Zealand as a climate refuge, source of food, maker of better wine? ;-) How does little New Zealand say no to the potential influx of Australians? How will New Zealand’s national interest best be served? Can we retain our distinctive and separate identity, or would it be better (as some already argue) to deepen our relationship with Australia in the expectation that we will do better in the long run.

This is not simple xenophobia (though I expect that will be one consequence for many), but speaks to a larger question: how many New Zealanders is enough? At what point should we attempt to put the brakes on migration? 4.4 million on two big islands exporting food to the world is one thing. Double that number and you double the size of the economy, something that would be welcomed by many in the business community. But if 4 million are finding it difficult to live a low-carbon lifestyle, how much harder will it be for 8 million? The pressure on the natural assets that have been our marketing edge will be increased dramatically. The asymmetry of our relationship with our nearest neighbour could mean that the answer to the big question will not be determined by us.

Climate crunch

Exploring the full ramifications of my second scenario is well beyond the scope of this post. Gwynn Dyer’s book Climate Wars is a good place to start for some well-realised “disaster” scenarios, but from New Zealand’s perspective if the world is going to hell in a handbasket we have some major advantages, but also a few serious disadvantages. On the plus side we’re only close to Australia (where “close” is defined as equivalent to the distance from London to Moscow), and that should mean that we will not be an immediate target for an influx of poor refugees. Australia will act — as it already is — as a buffer between NZ and Asia. We will probably also be warming more slowly than most, and so should be able to feed ourselves for the foreseeable future.

But those two factors are also vulnerabilities. The NZ economy depends on food and primary produce exports and income from tourism. If the global economy and particularly global trade is stressed by the need to recover from successive climate extremes, our high-value tourists might disappear — or turn up waving cheque books, looking for somewhere to escape. At the same time, our ability to grow food might make NZ a very attractive prospect for countries struggling to feed their billions. Chinese interests are already investing in New Zealand agriculture (and in other parts of the world), and while this can be viewed as a relatively harmless consequence of Chinese economic growth and the globalisation of agriculture, it could also be seen as a loss of sovereign control over our natural resources. The current unease over increasing foreign ownership of our agricultural land might be the first sign of an issue that could become a political flashpoint in coming decades.

The climate crunch may never come — or be late arriving — but it is still something we should factor into the design of policy. We are happy to invest a large amount of money in our defence forces, in the hope they will never have to be used at home. We need to take the same attitude to developing resilience to possible climate shocks. Building the ability to survive and recover from the worst that the future may bring means beginning to discuss some of the questions I’ve raised in this article. I’ve often said we need a “national conversation” to build consensus on climate policy. That applies equally to policies to reduce emissions and those required to adapt to the changes that are inevitable — and means taking a hard-nosed look at our relationship with Australia and the world. Here’s your starter for ten: how many New Zealanders is enough?

[Mercury Rev]