It’s time to include climate change in the immigration debate

hanna lake dried up

A man walks through the desiccated remains of Hanna Lake in Balochistan, which dried up during a decade-long drought in the region (courtesy of Al Jazeera).

Last month, The New York Times released the results of a poll, showing that Hispanics are far more likely to view climate change as a pressing issue that directly affects them. Fifty-four percent of Hispanics rated global warming as a extremely or very important, compared to just 37% of non-Hispanic whites. Moreover, nearly two-thirds (63%) of Hispanics said that the federal government should do a lot or a great deal to tackle climate change.

There are a number of reasons to explain this high level of concern, such as the fact that Hispanic households are far more likely to live in neighborhoods adversely affected by pollution. Minority communities are also more acutely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, such as heat-related mortality.

This increasing awareness about climate change among Hispanics may appear odd to some, at first glance. As Coral Davenport put it, “the findings of the poll run contrary to a longstanding view in politics that the environment is largely a concern of affluent, white liberals.” Timothy Matovina, executive director of the Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame, voiced this conventional wisdom in January, arguing,

Many Spanish-speaking immigrants are worried about surviving from one week to the next. Going to the latest rally on climate change or writing letters to their local chamber of commerce about some environmental issue that sounds to me more like something a middle-class person would do with time on their hands.

Climate change and drought in the American Southwest & Central America

What this argument misses, however, is the myriad ways that climate change is intertwined with other key issues, like immigration. Recently, NASA scientists released a study examining how climate change will affect drought conditions throughout the American Southwest and Central Plains. The study also investigated the impacts on Central America, particularly Mexico. As the map below illustrates, under a business as usual emissions scenario, there is a greater than 80% likelihood that the region will experience a megadrought of at least 30 years between 2050-2099. The historical risk of this type of megadrought is less than 12%.

This study was the first of its kind to compare projected drought trends to the historical record for the past millennium. While droughts of this type did occur during the Medieval Climate Anomaly, a warmer-than-average period lasting from 1100-1300 CE, future droughts will be exceptional. Even if the world takes steps to dramatically curb carbon emissions by mid-century,  climate change will lead to drought conditions that are “unprecedented” in at least the last 1,000 years.

nasa drought projection 2095

The portions of the continental US and Mexico that will be affected by extreme drought this century under a business as usual scenario (courtesy of NASA).

This latest study supplements earlier research showing the looming specter of drought for the region in question. A 2012 Nature Climate Change study by Aiguo Dai, for instance, concluded there would be “severe and widespread droughts in the next 30–90 years” through much of the world, particularly the US and Central America. And a 2011 study from Michael Wehner et al. found that an ensemble analysis “exhibits moderate drought conditions over most of the western United States and severe drought over southern Mexico as the mean climatological state.”

Climate change, drought, and immigration

So what does this research have to do with immigration and Hispanic Americans? Well, we have considerable evidence that droughts are a major driver of migration. As I wrote last January, high temperatures and declining rainfall significantly increase rates of migration in Pakistan. Males living in rural parts of the country, for instance, are 11 times more likely to migrate during periods of extremely high temperatures, while both men and women are more likely to leave their villages under drought conditions.

But the evidence linking climate-induced droughts and migration is not just contained to Pakistan. Because declining rainfall and elevated temperatures combine to lower crop yields in arid and semi-arid areas around the world, drought is likely to be a driver of out-migration in a number of regions. A 2010 study in PNAS found just such a link in Mexico. Declining yields of corn due to drought could increase rates of immigration from Mexico to the US by up to 9.6% through 2080.

Last week, Joe Romm connected the NASA drought study toUS immigration policy. In a post, which is somewhat inartfully titled “If We Dust-Bowlify Mexico And Central America, Immigration Policy Will Have To Change,” Romm writes:

But what are the implications for our poorer neighbors to the south? There will be virtually no part of their countries that are not in near-permanent Dust Bowl or severe drought. And of course their coastal areas (and ours) will be trying to “adapt” to sea level rise of perhaps 3 to 6 feet by 2100 (and likely faster rise after that). Again for all but the wealthiest coastal areas, the primary adaptation strategy will probably be abandonment.

Much of the population of Mexico and Central America — likely over 100 million people (Mexico alone is projected to have a population of 150 million in 2050!) — will be trying to find a place to live that isn’t anywhere near as hot and dry, that has enough fresh water and food to go around. They aren’t going to be looking south.

Romm calls this scenario “a humanitarian and security disaster of almost unimaginable dimensions.” Unfortunately, like all too many commentators before him, Romm makes broad statements about environmentally-induced migration, a topic that is incredibly complex and multi-layered. It’s exactly these types of sweeping generalizations that has led others to claim we would see up to 50 million “climate refugees” by the year 2010. Not quite.

Putting environmentally-induced migration in context

First of all, from a legal and academic sense, there’s no such thing as a climate refugee. But beyond that, it’s not helpful to reduce an issue as complex as migration to a string of simplified absolutes. Arguing that drought conditions will inevitably force people to abandon their villages, en masse, ignores a large collection of evidence to the contrary and effectively robs these people of their agency. We need to do better than that as a community of people who purport to care about the interests of individuals on the front lines of climate change.

Romm’s claim that abandonment will be the primary adaptation strategy has little support. Migration carries considerable costs and risks for individuals, so it is almost never the first choice people pursue. Environmental stress is one of many considerations that people have when deciding to migrate, but it is important to remember that this decision includes a number of social, economic, and political factors.

When examining migration patterns, we need to consider both the push and pull factors involved. Drought can be a major push factor that drives people from their homes, but there generally needs to be pull factors on the other end to attract people to destination communities. We have plenty of evidence of this from Mexico, where multiple studies from migration scholars at the University of Colorado have found that emigration to the US largely occurs among households that have previous experience with migration and/or have access to established migration networks. While declining rainfall does appear to drive households to migrate from Mexico to the US (especially for households living in dry portions of Mexico and during periods of extreme drought), the existence of social networks for potential migrants is “dominating” these flows. Whether or not households choose to migrate during dry spells is largely predicated on this factor.

None of this is to suggest that, as large portions of the Southwest and Central America enter persistent drought conditions, the number of people entering the US across the southern border (with or without legal approval) won’t increase. It almost certainly will. We have already seen spikes in migration from countries such as Guatemala, which is currently enduring an historic drought.

But, if we are proactive, things need not devolve into the worst case scenario Romm laid out. The US and our neighbors need to work together to both enhance the adaptive capacity of people living in Central America, so they can be better prepared to weather a changing climate in situ and to reform immigration policies to facilitate the movement of people throughout the region.

Migration has always been a vital adaptation in the face of external stress, and we should consider it through that lens. It is likely time for the international community to begin including migration and displacement in the broader discussion about climate change policy. Perhaps it can be couched under the national adaptation plans or the work program on loss and damage. But we need to be very careful not to let migration get subsumed within climate change. As I’ve noted, there could be significant unintended consequences of creating a special protected class for climate migrants. What about internally displaced persons who cannot access international assistance? What about the 40-80 million people who have been displaced by large dam projects worldwide?

We must also be careful about hyping waves of climate refugees. There is already enough backlash against immigrants worldwide, and pushing such doomsday scenarios may just serve to heighten that opposition. Rather than building figurative and literal barriers to immigration, we need to begin upgrading our domestic and foreign policy to support and protect potential migrants of all stripes. In a greenhouse world, we can no longer afford to consider immigration policy in a vacuum.