Refugees gather at a camp in the village of Garowe, Somalia in 2017 (Anna Mayumi Kerber/Picture-Alliance-dpa, via AP Images)

Climate Change Is Already Driving Mass Migration Around the Globe

To ignore this fact—as the Trump administration insists on doing—is to hamper U.S. foreign policy.

January 25, 2019

Given the oversize role that migration plays in our current political discourse, you’d think there would be more emphasis on the one factor military and security experts believe will affect future migration patterns more than any other: climate change.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), a nonpartisan agency that analyzes and audits federal policy to ensure its efficiency and cost-effectiveness, isn’t going to let the topic go unaddressed. In a report to Congress last week, the GAO criticized the manner in which the Trump administration has sought to remove any acknowledgement of climate change from our foreign policy and diplomatic strategies, keeping experts in the dark about an issue that’s growing only more urgent as a shifting climate—and all that comes with it—displaces millions of people and disrupts societies across the globe.

In the European Union, where the stresses and strains associated with processing large numbers of migrants have already reached crisis proportions, experts predict that the annual stream of those seeking safety within its borders will triple by the end of the century due to climate-related migration. And a 2018 World Bank Group report estimates that the impacts of climate change in three of the world’s most densely populated developing regions—sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America—could result in the displacement and internal migration of more than 140 million people before 2050. That many people on the move could easily lead to massive political and economic strife and significantly stall development in those regions.

According to Steve Trent of the Environmental Justice Foundation, an organization based in the United Kingdom that advocates for environmental causes through a human rights lens, climate change “is the unpredictable ingredient that, when added to existing social, economic, and political tensions, has the potential to ignite violence and conflict with disastrous consequences.” Policymakers and business leaders, he says, need to make it a top priority. In the United States, our own military leaders and foreign-policy experts agree, which is why they’ve worked over the years to incorporate an understanding of climate change and its geopolitical ramifications into our statecraft.

Makeshift shelters in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh are flooded during the monsoon season in 2018. Millions of Rohingyan refugees occupy the camp, one of the largest in the world.

Masfiqur Sohan/NurPhoto-Sipa via AP Images

President Obama formally observed the relationship between climate change, migration, and instability in a 2016 Presidential Memorandum, “Climate Change and National Security.” That memo directed federal departments and agencies “to perform certain functions to ensure that climate change-related impacts are fully considered in the development of national security doctrine, policies, and plans.” It also established a Climate and National Security Working Group, made up of representatives from the Departments of State, Defense, Homeland Security, and many others, whose purpose was to study the issue and make informed recommendations to the national security and intelligence communities.

By breaking climate change down into its component geophysical symptoms, the memo makes a strong case for treating it as a threat multiplier, with the potential to push vulnerable states past the tipping point into chaos. “Extended drought, more frequent and severe weather events, heat waves, warming and acidifying ocean waters, catastrophic wildfires, and rising sea levels all have compounding effects on people’s health and well-being,” it reads. “Flooding and water scarcity can negatively affect food and energy production. Energy infrastructure, essential for supporting other key sectors, is already vulnerable to extreme weather and may be further compromised.” Also listed among the concerns are transportation disruptions, pest outbreaks, the spread of invasive species, and disease. All of these, in the words of the memo, “can lead to population migration within and across international borders, spur crises, and amplify or accelerate conflict in countries or regions already facing instability and fragility.”

Obama’s memo painted a dire picture. But it wasn’t dire enough, apparently, to earn the respect of President Trump, who revoked it in March 2017 in a sweeping executive order that also rescinded a number of other Obama-era memos and executive orders related to climate change. In case anyone misunderstood his rationale for essentially stripping any and all mention of climate change from the executive branch, he spelled it out. “[I]t is the policy of the United States that executive departments and agencies . . . immediately review existing regulations that potentially burden the development or use of domestically produced energy resources and appropriately suspend, revise, or rescind those that unduly burden the development of domestic energy resources beyond the degree necessary to protect the public interest or otherwise comply with the law.”

Last Thursday the GAO weighed in on Trump’s decision—and deemed it seriously shortsighted. At the end of its report, “Climate Change: Activities of Selected Agencies to Address Potential Impact on Global Migration,” it concludes that State Department missions are less likely now than they were before to recognize climate change “as a risk to their strategic objectives.” It recommends reinstating guidance for diplomats and other foreign service workers “that clearly documents the department’s process for climate change risk assessments for integrated country strategies.” Or, to translate from the GAO’s carefully calibrated nonpartisan language into plain English: Enough with the gag order, guys. You’re putting our diplomatic corps at a strategic disadvantage and doing a real disservice to American interests abroad.

Refugees from Libya trying to reach Europe in an overcrowded rubber boat are rescued by members of the Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms in 2018.

Felipe Dana/Associated Press

The sad yet predictable postscript to the report? According to the GAO, the State Department has grudgingly accepted its recommendation and says it will “update its integrated country strategy guidance by June 30” to inform missions that they have the option, at least, to talk about climate resilience officially without fear of punishment. But the administration couldn’t let the GAO go without smacking it down for its insolence. In its response, the State Department also hinted that it was strongly considering rescinding yet another Obama-era executive order related to climate resilience and international development.

Meanwhile, new stories continue to come out every day—in Bangladesh, in Syria, in Mexico and Central America—that confirm the worst fears of security experts and foreign aid workers and reveal the administration’s blasé attitude for what it actually is: a willful ignorance of the facts, mixed with an utter contempt for those who put facts before ideology.

Tell President Trump we demand immediate action on climate change


onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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