Last week’s Economist featured an interesting article on migrations caused by climate change. I am, for one, rather agnostic on climate change. While keeping our minds open to rational demonstrations, we should recall that environmentalists have forecasted other imminent catastrophes before, notably in the 1960s and 1970s. Many ideologues are happy to jump on any excuse for oppressing their fellow humans, oblivious to the high likelihood that they will themselves be oppressed by their fellow revolutionaries. Let’s admit for now, as The Economist believes, that the climate is changing due to human activity and has started pushing many people to move—especially, in poor countries, from the countryside to the cities. (See “The Surprising Upside of Climate Migration,” The Economist, July 1, 2023.)

The first interesting reality is that, as any economist should tell you, individuals are not plants. They will move to mitigate the effects of any detrimental event, just as they move to pursue new opportunities. Nobody has to force them to do so. Following imperative incentives, they will also discover new information they were not aware of. By trying to stop their conditions from deteriorating, they will generally improve their welfare. This is already happening when more frequent droughts and floods incite poor people in poor countries to move to cities. About poor farmers and herders who have moved to the capital of Niger, The Economist writes:

“It’s better here. There’s work,” says Ali Soumana, an ex-herder who now makes bricks. Back in the village he did not have enough to eat; now he does.

When flames approach and you don’t have a fire extinguisher, you move. By the same token, as parts of the Earth grow less habitable, people will migrate. …

Climate-induced migration will often be traumatic. Yet it will also be an essential tool for adapting to a warming planet. And it may have some positive side-effects. If it causes more subsistence farmers to move to cities, they will probably find better work, health care and schools. They may also start having smaller families.

Niger, where climate change is already spurring large-scale migration, gives a sense of how things might unfold. …

When rural migrants move to urban areas, their lives tend to improve. Throughout the developing world, poverty is less common in cities. Urban wages are higher and depend less on the weather.

Climate change may jolt some into making a decision (to migrate) that would long have been in their interest anyway. …

Villages can be stifling places, where old men enforce rigid traditions that, among other things, treat women abominably. In the hurly-burly of a city, those rules weaken. Old men may lament the shift to immodest dress and individualism. “In a village, when we make a decision, everyone follows it. Here [in the city], it’s everyone for himself,” sighs Mr Hassone, who is 66. Yet he admits that his children prefer urban life, because there is more to do (and, whisper it, more freedom).

In government, old black men are not better than old white men. Governments—as they are in reality, not those of legends—are not always helpful:

Amazingly, many governments discourage domestic mobility. Roughly half have policies to reduce rural-urban migration, according to the UN.

A second reflection concerns the unmistakable parallel with what happened in the Industrial Revolution. In 18th- and 19th-century Western countries, about to become rich partly for this very reason, people who were starving in the countryside moved to cities and factories. There, conditions were better than starvation, and soon to improve as never before in history. In the United Kingdom during the 80 years following 1820, life expectancy at birth increased from 40 to 50 years. In 1900, it was still only 24 years in China and 32 in Russia, pretty much what it had been during all of mankind’s history (statistics from Angus Maddison, The World Economy, OECD, 2006).

Third lesson: Assuming that climate change has serious detrimental consequences, mitigating them is likely to be less costly (to most people) than the short-term and long-term consequences of unleashing leviathans with still more power to conscript their subjects in another collective war that will be “the health of the state” (as Randolph Bourne said of conventional wars).

In the same issue of The Economist, another article was, in my opinion, less economically literate (see “The choice between a poorer today and a hotter tomorrow”). It did emphasize the importance of economic development for poor countries—so that their inhabitants become rich, just as our recent ancestors in the West did, although the venerable magazine did not put it that way. The importance of growth and prosperity transpires in the simple fact it is the taxpayers of wealthy countries that are called upon to help the governments of poor countries in climate matters, not the other way around. It is often forgotten, even by The Economist, that the best way to help people in poor countries would be to stop harming them with the protectionist measures that limit our imports from them. That is the most efficient and ethical way to share our prosperity. Let me add that, of course, “share” can be a misleading word because an inhabitant of a rich country who chooses to trade with a producer from a poor country also benefits from the exchange; free exchange is never a zero-sum game.