Science

Climate Change Will Only Increase the Number of Refugees and Asylum-Seekers at America’s Doors

Trump’s response to the caravan is part of a wider push to close doors at exactly the time we need to be opening them.

Some of the thousands of Central American migrants in the caravan get a lift to a camp.
Some of the thousands of Central American migrants in the caravan get a lift to a camp for the evening on Tuesday in Juchitán de Zaragoza, Mexico. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The Trump administration is preparing to dispatch 800 troops and has threatened to shut down all entry across the U.S.-Mexico border as a caravan of thousands of Central American migrants travels northward seeking asylum.

It’s a textbook show of Trumpian drama, a fiery response intended to bolster the Republican case for stronger border protections ahead of next month’s election, following days of conspiracy-mongering and wall-to-wall Fox News coverage.

But within the thunderous saber rattling over would-be asylum-seekers is the overtone of President Donald Trump’s apparent long-term policy to deal with the anticipated social and political upheaval of rapidly worsening climate change.

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Now, with the White House poised to gut the federal government’s only two major rules to reduce planet-warming emissions and Trump threatening to cut aid to drought- and violence-afflicted Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, critics say the administration’s strategy to deal with climate change is taking shape, frustrating national security experts who say hunkering down and militarizing borders will do little to mitigate global warming’s threats.

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“A quasi-fascist policy of fear-mongering about immigration and corresponding militarization of the border is clearly the major thrust of Trump’s response to the mounting impacts of climate chaos,” said Ashley Dawson, author of Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change.

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Despite the repeated dismissals of climate science by the president and many of his top advisers, the Trump administration officially forecasts that the planet is expected to warm by 7 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century―a projection buried in a 500-page environmental-impact statement in August.

That’s roughly double the temperature scientists say will cause cataclysmic drought, storms, and sea-level rise, and roughly four times the warming the planet has already experienced since the preindustrial era. Under those conditions, more than 1 billion people globally could be forced to flee their homes by 2050, and up to 2 billion by 2100. Tropical regions―where many of the roughly 20,000 to 40,000 migrants who crossed the U.S. southern border each month in the past year came from―are expected to be hit the hardest.

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Neither the White House nor the Pentagon responded to requests for comment Friday.

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Migration from the trio of Central American nations surged 25 percent between 2007 and 2015 following the worst drought in 30 years, which left more than 3 million people hungry.

“The main driver is, yes, desperation,” María Mendez Libby, the country director of Oxfam Guatemala, told Earther on Thursday. “They have seen it’s not a seasonal desperation. It’s an ongoing continuous desperation for their entire life.”

It’s difficult to draw a direct line between climate change and a migrant’s decision to leave home, and neither the United Nations nor nearly any other major countries currently offer legal avenues for asylum-seekers fleeing the effects of global warming. New Zealand became the first country late last year to create a special status for climate refugees with 100 annual visas as low-lying island nations in its corner of the Pacific face existential threat of sea-level rise. On the opposite side of the ocean, a hotter climate is expected to parch once-fertile lands. In an email, Jennifer Francis, a Rutgers University climate researcher, said, “It’s likely that increasing drought in Central America is making it more difficult for farmers there to make a living.”

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Lina Pohl, El Salvador’s environment and natural-resources minister, made a similar declaration at a press conference in Panama on Thursday: “The next migrants are going to be climate migrants.”

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To some, the decision to send troops to the border demonstrates the president’s affinity for a general approach of throwing the military at the problem.

“The President had willing partners in Congress and could have worked on immigration, border security, DREAMers and all that,” Joseph Majkut, director of climate policy at the Niskanen Center, a libertarian think tank, said in an email. “But he didn’t take advantage of that opportunity. Having missed the chance to seek actual reforms, we now get a militaristic and hasty response to a predictable stress.”

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Such a response will do little to quell the long-term national security concerns posed by climate change, said Francesco Femia, president of the Center for Climate & Security.

“Climate change [is] contributing to make nations unstable, both nations in our neighborhood and others abroad,” said Femia, whose Washington-based policy institute includes former top national security advisers. “The best way, from a security perspective, is to bolster the resilience of those countries so you reduce the likelihood of instability, reduce the likelihood of conflict, and reduce the likelihood of displacement that might force outward migration.”

That doesn’t seem likely in the near term. The president attempted to cut funding for United States Agency for International Development by 33 percent this year, though bipartisan support for the federal government’s dedicated aid agency staved off the proposal.

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By deporting thousands of Central Americans from the United States, the administration, like the Obama administration before it, is bolstering gang recruitment in countries like El Salvador, according to a December report from the International Crisis Group. That worsens the violence that many cite as a main reason for fleeing northward.

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Even if the White House backtracks on “substantially” cutting the combined $500 million in aid the United States gave to Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador last year, Trump has halted payment of the $3 billion the nation pledged under the 2015 Paris Agreement to help poorer countries adapt to climate change.

In December, the Trump administration broke with two decades of military planning and removed reference to climate change from the White House’s 56-page National Security Strategy report. But if militarizing the border becomes long-term climate policy, Gwynne Dyer, a Canadian military historian, has said enforcement will require bloodshed.

“Remember the Iron Curtain?” Dyer said in a lengthy 2010 lecture. “You can only shut the border if you’re willing to kill people.”

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