Pressure builds to address climate-induced migration

More and more people are fleeing the areas hit hardest by severe weather and warming temperatures, and the trend will continue, experts say

An aerial view of the Guatemalan village of Queja, destroyed by a landslide caused by hurricane-related heavy rains that hit Central America in May. (Carlos Alonzo/AFP via Getty Images file photo)
An aerial view of the Guatemalan village of Queja, destroyed by a landslide caused by hurricane-related heavy rains that hit Central America in May. (Carlos Alonzo/AFP via Getty Images file photo)
Posted September 30, 2021 at 7:15am

When Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez, D-N.Y., witnessed the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, she noticed a connection between two of the thorniest issues facing lawmakers.

A Puerto Rican native, Velázquez was struck by the move north of large numbers of Puerto Ricans in the aftermath of the devastating 2017 storm, and she told Speaker Nancy Pelosi on a trip to Central America that it was time to look at how climate change was affecting migration.

“We need to accept that climate change is not some distant probability or possibility,” she said in an interview. “It is part of our current reality.”

Migration experts say the Earth’s changing climate has exacerbated movement from parts of the world hit hardest by severe weather and warming temperatures, a trend that’s only going to worsen in the coming years.

Often tied to other structural problems, such as poverty and political instability, climate change plays into migration in a variety of ways. Its impacts can be seen, in part, in the historically high number of Central American migrants who traveled to the U.S. border this year and even the influx of recent arrivals from Haiti.

“What we’re seeing in terms of people fleeing environmental disasters and arriving in the U.S. is part of a larger story about how climate change is making it increasingly unsafe to stay at home,” said Ama Francis, climate displacement strategist at the International Refugee Assistance Project.

“Without drastic cuts in climate pollution, we’re likely to see more and more migration and people being forced to seek safety either in their own countries or abroad.”

A worsening problem

In late 2020, Central American nations were ravaged by two major storms: Hurricanes Eta and Iota, which hit the region just two weeks apart. That, experts say, along with decades of economic instability and endemic violence, played a role in the major uptick of asylum-seekers from the region who arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border this year.

“You can imagine what it’s like to be a farmer in Honduras,” Bill McKibben, co-founder of the climate advocacy group 350.org, said in a recent webinar. “There’s no longer a road or a bridge to get your produce to market, and there’s a pretty good chance there’s a foot of sand on what used to be your field.”

The storms in Central America followed years of persistent drought, creating insurmountable problems for many farmers who depend on agriculture for their livelihoods. They also destroyed homes and infrastructure and deepened poverty, all amid a raging pandemic.

“Those crop failures are because of things like extremely high temperatures that scorched the earth. Then you had rainfall variability, where the rain does not come when it’s expected, so the planting season gets completely thrown off,” said Amali Tower, executive director of the advocacy group Climate Refugees.

In all of fiscal 2021, U.S. Customs and Border Protection recorded more than 1 million unique encounters with migrants, many of whom were Central American, compared with just over 850,000 during the same period in fiscal 2019.

Severe weather is more problematic when countries lack the underlying infrastructure needed to withstand storms. For countries facing structural economic problems, it can be difficult to invest in climate resilience.

A prime example is Haiti, in the spotlight recently after thousands of Haitian migrants gathered at the U.S.-Mexico border in Del Rio, Texas, prompting multiple deportation flights.

Many of those migrants had not lived in Haiti for years, having fled years ago from a country that has not fully recovered from a severe 2010 earthquake. The nation has since been hit with numerous tropical storms and is currently still reeling from another major earthquake just last month and political instability stemming from the assassination of the president earlier this year.

As climate change worsens, problems are likely to grow. In 2018, the World Bank estimated that Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia will generate 143 million more climate migrants by 2050.

“The more warming that we experience, the more severe the consequences will be in terms of migration,” Francis said. “More areas of the world will be hotter and therefore uninhabitable.”

Government inaction

Climate and refugee advocates say the U.S. government must do more to address climate-induced migration. In 2019, a Government Accountability Office report found that executive agencies were not adequately considering climate change as a driver of migration.

The State Department, for example, in 2017 stopped providing missions with guidance on whether and how to include climate risk in their integrated country strategies.

“Without clear guidance, State may miss opportunities to identify and address issues related to climate change as a potential driver of migration,” the GAO said.

Velázquez earlier this year reintroduced a bill that would create a U.S. resettlement pathway for climate-based migrants, establish a global climate change resilience strategy, create a coordinator for climate resilience government position and train Foreign Service officers in climate change resilience.

“Are we prepared? Do we have a national strategy? I don’t think that we do,” she said. “We need to collect data. We need to advise or provide technical assistance to countries so that they can deal with their own reality and mitigate the effects of climate change in their own countries.”

Strategies to address climate migration are twofold: creating immigration pathways for people forced to flee and providing aid to vulnerable countries so they can build climate resilience and decrease the likelihood that people will flee in the future.

“The important point that we often skip over is the failure to change course and the failure to support countries in building their resiliency and adaptation. That’s what’s going to force an outcome of displacement and migration,” Tower said. “Nobody’s first choice is to be forced to leave their home.”

A State Department spokesperson said the Biden administration plans to release a report on climate-induced migration, as required by a February executive order focused on refugee resettlement and planning for the impact of climate change on migration.

“The United States is committed to leading global efforts to address climate change and mitigate its impacts,” the spokesperson said. “We will act with the urgency the climate crisis requires, working collectively with the full range of stakeholders to respond to the challenges posed by climate-related migration and displacement.”  

Advocates hope to see policies like expansion of temporary protected status to countries weathering natural disasters as well as the training of asylum officers to understand climate migration.

But, more broadly, they want to see a deeper understanding of the reasons why people leave their home countries. Immigration is often framed as an economic choice, but climate refugee advocates say it’s more of a necessity.

That consensus does not yet exist, at least on Capitol Hill. Legislation to address climate migration is unlikely to gain much traction when many lawmakers believe other factors, such as more lenient U.S. immigration policies, are giving people incentives to leave their homes.

“I think the appetite is dim, so long as understanding is this myopic,” Tower said.