The United Kingdom’s Shadow Minister for Immigration, Labour MP Chris Bryant, gave an interesting speech on immigration on Monday, contrasting Labour’s stance with that of the Conservative/Liberal Democrats’ Coalition. The speech echoed a lot of the themes that animate U.S. debates on immigration, including a discussion of its impact on local economies, how to integrate new arrivals, and how to curtail illegal entry. Among these factors was also a brief discussion of climate refugees.

It was only a small portion of his speech, but it may presage a critical future debate about population movement caused by environmental issues, as well as a wider discussion of how the developed world should approach the effects of climate change in the developing world.. Talking about the British public’s tendency to under-analyze the “push factors” that might force people to emigrate (rather than the “pull factors,” such as demand for low-wage, low-skill labor and relatively open borders), Bryant said:

In 2010 extreme weather displaced millions in Malaysia, Pakistan, China, Sri Lanka and the Philippines and the United Nations estimates that in 2008 20 million people were displaced by climate change, compared to 4.6 million by virtue of internal conflict or violence.

Bryant’s reference to environmental refugees is a springboard to calling for action on climate change to prevent an increase in immigration from the developing world into cooler and more stable climes in the developed world: “So, if we get climate change wrong there is a very real danger we shall see levels of mass migration as yet unparalleled.”

This is a contrast to the actions of an American legislator, Hawaii’s Senator Brian Schatz. Schatz, too, is concerned about climate change, but he believes the United States should be more open to absorbing its impacts to the developing world. When the comprehensive immigration reform bill was being debated in the U.S. Senate in June, Schatz proposed an amendment to create a special status for climate refugees. As Rebecca Leber’ s report in ThinkProgress explains, the amendment would allow the State Department and Department of Homeland Security to designate individuals or groups of individuals as “stateless persons” for the purpose of legalizing their permanent  presence in the United States.  To qualify, their home nations would have to have been “made uninhabitable by climate change.”

Both responses thus seem to represent a shorthand for possible responses to the potential catastrophic effects of climate change. Depending on economic circumstance, some nations may be more willing to make concessions for environmentally impacted refugee surges. The whole debate begs the question as to what the developed world, whose economic development has been built on greenhouse gas emissions, owes to the developing world, which has to balance more carefully economic growth and ecological protection.

Some vocal critics of the U.S., for example, have focused on creating transfer mechanisms between the developed and developing world. The populist President of Bolivia, Evo Morales, in the past called for developed countries to contribute 1 percent of GDP to a United Nations fund for the developing world. There are several multilateral and multi-donor funds for climate change adaptation, including a U.N.-administered Green Climate Fund that should be operational by early 2014, though it is difficult to forecast whether the financial resources committed will be sufficient to address likely climate contingencies.

The debate over whether a radical reappraisal of immigration procedures or whether more robust climate funds are needed should be occurring now, however, before climate refugees become a crisis-level event. The United States, for one, is falling behind on leading by example, failing in many significant ways to reorient its economy to address this clear challenge. If China can debut a pilot emissions trading program without fearing its impact on its bottom line, what is stopping the United States from adopting similar measures?