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Climate and the Migration Crisis

AMBASSADOR RICHARD HOLWILL

CLIMATE AND A MIGRATION CRISIS

Politicians in both the United States and Europe face political pressures driven by the resistance to migrants seeking to cross into their territories. Yet, what we see now is but a trickle. It could soon become a flood.

That is the conclusion of a World Bank study that looked at “the premeditated responses to slow-onset shifts in the environment.” This report, last updated in 2021, called climate change an “increasingly potent driver of migration” that could force as many as 216 million people to move by 2050. [i]

The study focused less on rising sea levels and more on the factors that make the Earth habitable. The key factor in a habitability calculation is the temperature at which the body loses tolerance for heat. Zach Schlader, a physiologist at Indiana University Bloomington, explained that body temperature is regulated by sweating and that “at higher temperatures, your body won’t be able to lose heat to the environment efficiently enough to maintain its core temperature.” This threshold can be as low as 95 degrees Fahrenheit with high humidity, but in mostly dry air, “temperatures would have to top 130 degrees Fahrenheit to reach that limit.[ii]

Temperatures this high have consequences for plant life as well. Christopher Doughty, an associate professor of ecoinformatics at Northern Arizona University, studied data provided by the International Space Station and found that the average critical temperature beyond which photosynthetic machinery in tropical trees begins to fail is 116 degrees Fahrenheit. Doughty warned that rising air temperature could push trees in tropical forests beyond a tipping point, which would result in deforestation and a rapid decline in agricultural production.[iii]

The World in 2050

The World Bank used published academic estimates of temperature increases to describe the world in 2050. At present, less than one percent of land on earth is uninhabitable; this includes Death Valley in the United States, the Empty Quarter in Saudi Arabia, the Sahara, and a few other spots. A significant increase in mean annual temperatures could spread such hot zones to cover nearly 20 percent of the earth’s land area. If that happens, the World Bank estimates that one in every three people – hundreds of millions of people – would be forced to move.

However, we cannot assume that climate-driven migration will take place only at some nebulous future date. People are already migrating due to environmental degradation. The World Bank study reports that more than eight million people thus far have moved from Central Africa, primarily toward Europe. Indeed, the Sahel, a region just south of the Sahara, currently faces the most severe crisis. In the nine countries stretching across the continent from Mauritania to Sudan, significant population growth and steep environmental decline are on a collision course. More than 150 million people in these countries are threatened now by desertification, water shortages, and deforestation.

Climate as a Threat Multiplier

The collapse of an agricultural economy has myriad consequences, beyond the obvious food insecurity to which it gives rise.[iv] It also can trigger political instability and reportedly was among the factors driving the Arab Spring. Tracing climate changes across Central Africa offers dramatic examples of this relationship. The area is experiencing an agricultural crisis as a consequence of climate change. With their economies in shambles, these countries are experiencing political instability and either coups or attempted coups. Some even now call the area shown in the map below the “Coup Belt.”

 [v]

Central America offers another example of migration prompted, in part, by climate change. A research team at the University of Texas estimated that 1.5 million climate refugees left Central America between 2014 and 2020. Most were leaving Guatemala and Honduras for the United States.[vi]   

Many commentators contend that this migration is driven by corruption, crime, and violence. While that is arguably the case, many academics consider climate change to be a threat multiplier, because it exacerbates corruption, crime, and violence. This combination of factors increases the likelihood of migration.[vii]

Rising temperatures also drive ecological problems. The World Bank report says rainfall will decrease by 60 percent in Central America in the next decade. The study contends the heated air has driven away seasonal rains and facilitated the spread of beetles that ravaged pine forests. The loss of the forests, in turn, led to decreased water retention, thereby creating a self-perpetuating cycle of heat, drought, and despair.[viii]

The story is similar in South Asia where monsoons are critical for food production, particularly in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Those seasonal rains have been weaker and less predictable. The World Bank projects the region soon will have the highest incidence of food insecurity in the world. Some 8.5 million people have already fled, many to the upper valleys of the Indus and Ganges rivers. The study projected that climate change will drive food insecurity leading to the displacement of between 17 and 36 million people in South Asia over the next three decades.

Political and Security Implications

Immigration has been and will continue to be a political issue in the United States and Europe.  It certainly was a factor in the 2016 election of Donald Trump as president in the United States, and it is likely to be a leading factor in the country’s 2024 presidential election. Immigration was a key consideration in the approval of BREXIT, and it has influenced politics in Hungary, Germany, and other European countries. It is a factor in India, where the government built a fence along most of its 2,500-mile border with Bangladesh, where rising sea levels could force the displacement of nearly 20 million people.[ix]

Climate change also has international security implications. The U.S. National Academy of Science published a paper that links the revolution in Syria to an extended drought.[x] Former President Barack Obama cited that study in a graduation speech at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy: “Severe drought and crop failures and high food prices helped fuel the early unrest in Syria, which descended into civil war in the heart of the Middle East.”[xi]

If climate change can cause civil unrest, it is logical to assume these problems could lead to cross-border wars. Some countries are in a position to control the headwaters of rivers vital to countries downstream. If they cut off the water flow, downstream countries will react. This could provoke water wars in the years to come.

A Problem Now but a Crisis Later

Climate-change driven migration is not limited to the tropics. It is a problem even here in North America. Rising sea levels have caused evacuations in some low-lying parts of Louisiana, most recently in a community on Isle de Jean Charles. Some communities in Alaska and Washington state also have been moved to higher ground.

Brooklyn-based journalist Jake Bittle projects the greatest migration in U.S. history over the next several decades in his new book “The Great Displacement – Climate Change and the Next American Migration.” He contends that U.S. citizens will be displaced in ways that will be “unpredictable and chaotic.” Bittle adds that U.S. federal flood insurance and policies of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) compound the problem, often rebuilding the same house several times over.[xii] One cannot read his book without acknowledging the compelling case for revising dozens of counterproductive U.S. land-use and emergency-management policies.

Most voters in the United States and Europe see climate change and migration as discrete issues, not connected to each other or to a bigger picture. Yet, the connection is real and is already upon us.  It is a burden that should not be fostered off onto state governments. The burden of dealing with migrants at the U.S. southern border must be nationalized and formalized. The United States has laws pertaining to asylum for individuals fleeing violence and oppression but nothing that recognizes people forced to move by climate change. Creating that new status could ease the problems faced by the overburdened asylum-application system

Following this logic, the challenges of climate migration must be addressed at an international level, first by empowering the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to assist climate migrants. A new system could be modeled on the UN Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, which was created after World War II. It created camps and a system for repatriation or relocation for individuals in Europe and an internationally recognized legal status for displaced persons.[xiii]

Climate migration is not a problem of the future. If effective action is taken now, as the World Bank advocates, climate-related migration can be reduced significantly from current projection.[xiv] In addition to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the Bank argues that preparing for migration should be a top priority: “There is an urgent need for countries to integrate climate migration into national development plans and all facets of policy.” The framework listed by the Bank specifies the need for policies that will enable communities to adapt in place, enable mobility, and ensure that recipient countries are prepared for a surge in new residents.

The current debate in the United States focuses on reducing immigration at the southern border. The debate must be broadened and should consider seriously the Bank’s framework recommendations for addressing climate migration. It might be our first instinct to build fences and close our doors, but we must not close our minds to this problem. To ignore it now is to ensure that it becomes an unmanageable crisis in the future.

Richard Holwill

Wilson, Wyoming

January 2024

 

 

[i]  https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/entities/publication/2be91c76-d023-5809-9c94-d41b71c25635

[v]   Graphic: picture, <a href="https://www.vecteezy.com/free-vector/african-map">African Map Vectors by Vecteezy</a> shading inspired by Claire Berlinski, publisher of Cosmopolitan Globalist, using MapChart.

[ix] https://www.nrdc.org/stories/bangladesh-country-underwater-culture-move#:~:text=Climate%20experts%20predict%20that%20by,roughly%20the%20size%20of%20Iowa.

[xiii]   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Nations_Relief_and_Rehabilitation_Administration

[xiv]  https://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/climatechange

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