Climate Crises: The Issue of Climate Refugees and Migrants
Caid F. Franz
West Shore Community College
This essay will focus on the effects of climate change and how it creates climate migrants, particularly in Central America and the United States. This essay will explain what climate change is and define climate migrants. The essay goes into detail about the desperation of the situation and how the people of various nations are affected and trying to deal with climate change. The main focus will be how these various factors will lead to a downward spiral if no measures are taken to combat climate change., where the United States will collapse on itself trying to maintain a bloated population under the pressures of climate change.
Climate Crises: The Issue of Climate Refugees and Migrants
In our modern age climate change is at the forefront of many people’s minds, from the strongest denier to the most passionate activist. Crises that were not necessarily started by the climate, such as Australia’s recent bushfires, which have been attributed to arsonists, are certainly made much worse by the extreme heat and dryness caused by climate change (Yeung, 2020). This is just one example of how bad a climate situation can rage out of control and drive people from their homes, or worse, cause them to lose their lives. While countries such as Mexico and those in Central America and South America are not experiencing country-wide fires, the severity of the problems those countries face is enough to force people to migrate to the United States. These issues were not all started by climate change, but they have all absolutely been exacerbated by it and will continue to cause the issue of climate refugees to spiral out of control. The United States will eventually be unable to hold the sheer amount of migrants nor will it be able to stop people from flooding over the border, leading to a downward spiral into societal breakdown and mass death.
What Is Climate Change?
The Earth is currently undergoing massive climate change, affecting everywhere on the globe. According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), climate change and global warming are often used synonymously, and are related to one another, but they are not quite the same thing. Climate change refers to a shift in global weather patterns over a period of decades, centuries, or even millenia. Global warming is a similar effect, though it specifically refers to an increase in the average global temperature. Climate is also often confused with weather, and as stated before, climate change affects weather patterns but climate change and weather are not interchangeable. Weather refers to the current state of a particular area, such as it being sunny, raining, or experiencing a thunderstorm. Climate is the expected or average weather effects in a given area, such as the tropics typically being hot, humid, and receiving a lot of rainfall, or Michigan receiving snow in the winter. Climate change typically has a negative connotation, as it and global warming affect global weather patterns in a way that is detrimental to the human race. Since the start of the 20th century, data has shown that climate change is largely the result of human interference and greenhouse gas emissions (NASA, n.d.). There are many different sources of emissions, such as toxic exhaust from cars, methane production from cows, and massive amounts of smog produced from thousands of coal plants. The effects of climate change, particularly droughts and storms, also displace people by the millions. Displacement occurs both within countries such as the United States, and occurs between nations as people known as climate migrants flee from their homes in regions like Central America.
Climate Migrants and Refugees
It is important, before proceeding, to properly define what a climate refugee is. In his journal published in 2017 by WIREs, Baldwin argues that the terms of climate migrant and climate refugee are essentially misnomers, saying they are a, “… socially constructed phenomenon,” that are rejected even by those that the terms are meant to apply to. He says that climate change is definitely a factor in mass migration to some degree and should not be completely ignored, but that it is not the primary reason why people choose to migrate from their homes. The migrants themselves rarely, if ever, cite climate change as the reason that they are leaving their countries. However, Baldwin’s argument fails to consider the impact that climate change has on the other issues faced by people in third-world countries. In Catherine Ingram’s 2019 paper on climate change, Facing Extinction, she shows that many places in the world, including parts of South America, are facing issues that are created or exacerbated by climate change. These areas, according to Ingram, experience drought and therefore shortages of food, with groups of armed men stealing what little supplies are left and killing whoever gets in their way. It is obvious that the drought and food shortages are caused by climate change, though the issue of armed and dangerous groups does not immediately spark thoughts of climate change when taken in a vacuum. The reason that so many of these armed groups exist is because they feel the need to take the limited resources for themselves, with excessive scarcity being caused by climate change. Therefore, those who report leaving their countries for reasons unrelated to climate change, may very well fall under the umbrella of being definable as a climate migrant or refugee, especially if the reason they left can be traced back to a lack of resources. When taken this way, the definition becomes rather broad, but it is more accurate to the actual problem than claiming that the terms are merely constructs that do not apply to the world as it actually is.
Effects of Climate Change On Central America
In an article written by Alexa Rosario and published by The Years Project, she gives data on how climate change is affecting Central America. The average temperature of Central America has gone up by half a degree in the past seventy years and will increase by another degree in thirty more years. While an increase of a degree and a half in one hundred years may sound like nothing, that much of a temperature gain in a region of that size is troubling. Honduras has seen excessive flooding, with Hurricane Michael threatening the lives of over twelve thousand people in 2018, with this flooding projected to increase by sixty percent as well. Guatemala is likely to have extreme, unpredictable fluctuations in rainfall between utter downpours and complete droughts. Central America in particular is already affected by rising sea levels, an effect of climate change, but said sea levels also make the region more vulnerable to other climate-caused disasters and weather. Hurricanes caused by warmer sea water and higher wind speed will batter the area and the aforementioned droughts cause agriculture to become less and less viable. Much of Central America’s economy comes directly from agriculture, so this industry being hit as hard as it is makes it that much harder for people to survive in Central America. Over 2 million people have had to deal with crop failure in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua as a result of excessive rain and droughts (Rosario, n.d.).
More and more migrants cross the southern border of the United States each day, causing the situation at the United States-Mexico border to become more desperate. Even lone children are directly affected and trying to migrate to the United States or Mexico, possibly being detained when they reach the United States in particular. In a New York Times article written by Paulina Villegas (2019), she states that “American immigration authorities apprehended 76,020 minors, most of them from Central America, traveling without their parents…”. This issue is cyclical in terms of how much desperation is involved. Desperate times in Central America, to the point of even someone like Ingram calling these places “hellholes”, cause people to migrate en masse and begin pouring over the border. This induces a state of desperation in the United States, in which it will eventually not be able to sustain the mass migration of people. The United States government has responded to mass border-crossing by detaining people, with the United States President Donald Trump maintaining a strong anti-illegal immigration rhetoric (Scott, 2019). The United States has also reduced aid to Central America in the past few years, going from 754 million dollars in aid to climate and agricultural programs to 530 million dollars (Rosario, n.d.).While the circumstances that cause people to become climate migrants are not exactly the same as people attempting to immigrate from countries south of the border, usually Mexico, they are still likely crossing the border illegally and are treated much the same. The sheer scale of this issue is not to be understated. As soon as 2050, between two million to four million people are projected to be displaced from Central America alone (Hallet, 2019). This article also shows that a man referred to only as Ruben and many others like him do indeed report lack of agricultural gains as the reason they are leaving. There are also several reports of many people being displaced by natural disasters directly exacerbated by climate change, such as the previously mentioned drought and hurricane-level storms in the region.
Central and South Americans are not, and will not be, the only people to be displaced and become climate migrants. According to a 2019 article by Anaya Gupta, about thirteen million United States citizens will be displaced from their homes by 2050-2060. Not only will there be a mass influx of people from outside the United States, but several times as many people will be forced to move inland away from rising sea levels and storms. This also presents the issue of land shrinkage, now having to fit and sustain so many people on ever-shrinking land. These problems are not just something to worry about in the future either, as this is already happening on a smaller scale. Over one million Americans were displaced by flooding and storms in just 2017. While Gupta states that the United States will not be as severely affected by rising sea levels as third-world nations, that does not solve the issue of trying to maintain a country that is bloated with millions more people than it is supposed to have. The United States has a tendency of isolationism, only having to take a cursory glance on the rest of the world’s problems unless it directly affects them. It can be difficult for the self-titled greatest country on Earth to acknowledge that it has any issues at times, but the effects of climate change are now beginning to knock on its door. If these issues are ignored, the United States and its people are sure to enter an inescapable spiral of societal destruction.
According to Jem Bendell’s 2018 paper Deep Adaptation, the Earth is currently fitting climate change data from the 1990’s in the worst possible way. In particular, agriculture is becoming more difficult, with droughts and extreme heat making it much harder to grow anything. The Earth has entered into a sixth mass extinction event, and if climate change cannot be stopped or dampened, this will only continue to get worse. With so many people leaving their countries as a result of issues directly and indirectly caused by climate change, the places that they flee to become strained. The same droughts and lack of resources faced by third-world countries will begin to affect first-world countries like the United States in earnest, leaving a nation that is already heavily populated full of even more people now stuck in the same situation that they tried to get out of. Having people return to their country of origin will become a completely non-viable solution as well. By the point that the United States will be facing the same environmental conditions that third-world countries are facing now, those countries will have become utterly unlivable. If these countries seem ravaged by climate change now, they will eventually become wastelands that anyone would wish would only appear in their worst nightmares. The United States is already overpopulated and trying to deal with compounding issues that will likely lead it down a path of destruction even faster than third-world countries. In addition to this, by that point there will likely not be anywhere for people in the United States to flee to, as the other nations in the world will be dealing with the same or similar problems.
With climate change affecting Central America as drastically as it is, there looks to be little to no hope for the people living there except to leave, and even this is only a temporary solution. With the current trajectory that climate change is taking the world down, the United States is, for lack of a better word, doomed. If nothing is done to reduce strain on the environment, this will lead directly into a complete breakdown of civilized society, plunging the now-broken United States into barbarism and constant mass death (Ingram, 2019).
Baldwin, A. (2017, February 10). Climate change, migration, and the crisis of humanism. WIREs: Climate Change, 8(3), n/a-N.PAG. https://doi.org/10.1002/wcc.460 Retrieved from EBSCOhost.
Bendell, J. (2018, July 27). Deep Adaptation. MAHB. Retrieved from: https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=17&ved=2ahUKEwiBuK7Uy67pAhXzg3IEHfiGDCQQFjAQegQIAhAB&url=https%3A%2F%2Fmahb.stanford.edu%2Fwp-content%2Fuploads%2F2018%2F08%2Fdeepadaptation.pdf&usg=AOvVaw1bFztGxz0L7CtLkeLxA1LP
Gupta, A. (2019, August 8). Get Your Boats Ready! Why the U.S. Should Care About Climate Migrants. Rachel Carson Council. Retrieved from: https://rachelcarsoncouncil.org/get-boats-ready-u-s-care-climate-migrants/
Hallet, M. (2019, September 8). How climate change is driving emigration from Central America. PBS. Retrieved from: https://www.pbs.org/newshour/world/how-climate-change-is-driving-emigration-from-central-america
Ingram, C. (2019, February). Facing Extinction. Retrieved from: https://www.catherineingram.com/facingextinction/
NASA (n.d.) Global Warming vs. Climate Change. Retrieved from: https://climate.nasa.gov/resources/global-warming-vs-climate-change/
Rosario, A. (n.d.). Climate change is hitting Central America hard. Here’s what you need to know. The Years Project. Retrieved from: https://theyearsproject.com/learn/news/climate-change-is-hitting-central-america-hard-heres-why-it-matters/
Scott, E. (2019, October 2). Trump’s most insulting — and violent — language is often reserved for immigrants. The Washington Post. Retrieved from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/10/02/trumps-most-insulting-violent-language-is-often-reserved-immigrants/
Villegas, P. (2019, November 5). Detentions of Child Migrants at the U.S. Border Surges to Record Levels. The New York Times. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/29/world/americas/unaccompanied-minors-border-crossing.html
Yeung, J. (2020, January 3). Australia’s deadly wildfires are showing no signs of stopping. Here’s what you need to know. CNN. Retrieved from: https://www.cnn.com/2020/01/01/australia/australia-fires-explainer-intl-hnk-scli/index.html