Earth & Environment

January 23, 2023: The Coming Climate Migration Crisis

Posted on January 23, 2023 at 12:00 AM

By Jean Stewart, Chair, Earth & Environment Task Force

Growing interest in measures to mitigate damage and protect lives from more frequent and powerful weather events is apparent in news stories, documentaries, and magazine articles. European cities (London, Venice) and countries (the Netherlands) have built movable high-water walls to protect against coastal flooding from rising seas and storms. In the United States, Miami Beach has raised sidewalks and roads to cope with sunny-day flooding from sea level rise.

In other places, weather instability triggered by climate change brings drought: too little water instead of too much. Some countries (Chile, Morocco) that get regular coastal fog instead of rain have devised fog-harvesting devices, simple contraptions that capture the moisture and direct it into cisterns. These actually produce a surprising amount of water on a regular basis.

Mitigation projects are hopeful signs, but far too limited at present to protect against large-scale weather impacts. In addition to floods and droughts, another dangerous effect of our planet’s changing climate is increasing heat. Much of India experienced widespread and damaging heat waves in the summer of 2022. The Middle East is heating up as well, with some scientists foreseeing these locations becoming simply too hot in the summer to sustain human life. Extreme heat brings serious illnesses, like kidney disease to foreign workers in Qatar (Washington Post, Jan. 7, 2023), and lower worker productivity to all who must work outdoors. Heat in combination with less available water is damaging and destroying important food crops in India and Africa. Parts of Central America that used to support subsistence farming no longer have enough water to maintain this way of life.

There are already signs of people having to leave their homelands because the rains no longer come, or their farms are drowned by storms or rising seas. Emigration from conflict and persecution is already a major political and logistic problem for Western and Southern Europe and the United States. But some are already on the move because the planet’s weather systems have become unstable—disruption of the regular monsoon season in Asia, changes in rainfall patterns in rural Central America, floods in southern Africa, famine in northeast Kenya. The political uprisings leading to the horrific civil war in Syria were at least in part triggered by farmers crowding into cities because of a major drought some years ago.

Our own immigration crisis at our southern border is driven by many things, but some of those at the border are climate refugees, coming from areas where the soil can no longer produce enough for sustainable farming. Here in America, we need our political and economic leaders to start thinking seriously about major changes in our currently broken immigration system. Cities and towns on our southern border are being overwhelmed due to lack of food, lodging, medical help, and especially enough trained staff to process so many people seeking asylum from persecution, and just looking for places where they can live and work. Ironically, employers in many other parts of the country are in serious need of workers and would welcome immigrants.

The laws and regulations governing foreign entry to this country are confusing, unclear, and often arbitrary. The many agencies with responsibilities for vetting, supplying, and relocating immigrants often do not communicate with each other, have overlapping programs, and usually insufficient staff in the needed areas of expertise. Bureaucratic processes and requirements are burdensome, and sometimes contradictory.

Ideally, we would streamline processes, eliminate duplication and unnecessary paperwork, coordinate agencies and programs with each other, ensure clear communication, and budget for and fully staff agencies responsible for vetting, logistics, and resolving legal issues. We should be enabling immigrants to be matched with employers with specific needs, and to be settled in communities with good support networks. Unfortunately, our current divisive and angry political atmosphere makes these tasks nearly impossible. Performative politicians looking for publicity and campaign donations—those who use stunts like busing unprepared immigrants to Washington and New York are clearly not interested in solving our broken system.

However, it is imperative to start now, in anticipation of much larger groups of migrants escaping areas with disappearing coastlines, interior flood zones, long-term drought, and weather that is too hot for human habitation. President Biden has made a small start by improving the process for asylum seekers from Haiti, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba. If this very limited initiative works, it could provide a template for expansion and legislative overhaul of the entire US immigration system. There will likely be little or no productive legislative initiatives in the next 2 years, but the Biden Administration can work on longer term plans for anticipated higher levels of immigration, and can develop administrative improvements and better staffing of key agencies with already budgeted funds. Our new generation is likely to be open to problem solving instead of pointless culture wars, and engaging and partnering with them should spark new energy and ideas to meet the coming challenges.

We have a plethora of complex and confusing immigration categories, but I suggest creating one more category, for climate migrants. We accept political refugees and provide asylum for people escaping persecution. But we in the United States and in other wealthy countries need to give thought now for how to accept and resettle climate migrants whose homes will have become uninhabitable.

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