Geopolitics of Climate Change: Climate Refugees

Written by: Calvin Floyd

The words, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” is inscribed upon the Statue of Liberty, greeting every immigrant that has come to America since June of 1885. These words on one of our most well known national landmarks have long stood as both a sign of our congeniality with allies like France as well as our desire to welcome immigrants from around the world. These values, symbolized by the Statue of Liberty, have begun to feel somewhat obscured in our domestic and foreign policy landscape. 

In 2022, as has been the case for the past several years, both the issues of climate change and immigration lie at the center of political discourse both domestically and abroad. What may not seem obvious at first are the ways in which these two seemingly unrelated crises affect one another– particularly the ways in which climate change fuels the immigration crisis. Climate change has completely upended life in regions of the world that rely upon subsistence agriculture, leading to a mass climate migration crisis around the globe.

The facts of climate change are undeniable. NASA points to nine indicators that show evidence supporting this fact: human activity has driven the global temperature up 2.12 degrees Farenheit in the last century, our oceans have warmed .6 degrees Fahrenheit since 1969, and the planet’s largest ice sheets lost an average of 279 billion tons of ice per year between 1993 and 2019. With this established, I will focus on the aspect of climate change that most directly reflects climate refugees: water. 

One key consideration when evaluating the effects of climate change’s on the water cycle is energy. While energy cannot be created nor destroyed, it can change from one form to another, and the energy inputs and outputs of a system can be altered. This is the case as it pertains to the water cycle. Warm air can hold more moisture- thus as the temperature increases, more moisture evaporates into the atmosphere, leaving behind a parched landscape. The increased moisture in the air leads not only to increased humidity, but eventually greater precipitation as the warm, moist air cools. Thus, increased evaporation in one area can lead to increased precipitation in another area. When regions become drier due to increased temperatures, they also become more susceptible to flooding due to soil that is too parched to absorb water. This presents an interesting phenomena: increased global temperatures can lead to droughts in some areas, increased flooding in others, and more frequent severe weather elsewhere. An easy way to think of it is that increased temperatures “add” more energy to weather systems which intensifies those systems(adds more warm moisture), thus making their weather results more severe. 

The compounding effect of these factors is likely to lead to a dramatic shift in the availability of arable land. Arable land is defined as any land that is suitable for agricultural activity. The global productivity zone refers to the areas of the world with suitable climates for the productive growth of crops. Currently, that zone looks like a band that stretches around the globe, with the equator as its axis. As temperatures rise we will be faced with increased severe weather patterns, droughts, and flooding. Not only will this cause that  zone to shrink, but it will progressively move further north, causing the loss of arable land in Africa, South America, India, and southern Europe. Meanwhile, the United States, China, and Russia will likely gain arable land. To this end, ProPublica reports that currently, 1% of the world is an uninhabitable “hot zone” with a lack of essential resources and unbearable temperatures, and that this “hot zone” could go up to 19%.

So how do all of these factors add up to affect international relations, and why should we care? Climate change is already interrupting our international system and contributing to refugee crises across the globe. As a result of these climate statistics, billions of people are likely to be displaced from their homes in the next century if we do not act quickly. If we continue down this course, climate change will be the defining and catalyzing geopolitical issue of the Anthropocene- our current geological epoch, defined by human impact on the land. This is not to say that great power conflicts, ideological disagreements, economic warfare or territorial conflict will disappear in the coming years. Rather, they will be compounded by the resource conflicts and refugee crises that arise from climate change. 

In a 2020 article entitled “The Great Climate Migration has Begun,” the New York Times asserted that “​​As their land fails them, hundreds of millions of people from Central America to Sudan to the Mekong Delta will be forced to choose between flight or death.” In the most extreme climate predictions, an estimated 30 million will make their way to the United States border in the next 30 years. The refugee crises of the last decade, largely from the Middle East, have illustrated how countries with previously humane “western” ideals have treated these immigrants. From Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus to Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey to Andrzej of Poland to Donald Trump, nationalist governments have sprung into leadership in response and every sign points to this trend continuing for the climate crisis. 

 In the Western Hemisphere, climate refugees have a direct on domestic policy in the United States, and foreign policy with our neighbors. Examples of climate immigrants include Guatemalans, like Jorge A. of Alta Verapaz, who have been forced to flee north in recent years due to inconsistent weather patterns. These weather patterns directly align with the scenarios described earlier. For years, George and his neighbors faced staggering drought and crop failure. Then, when it finally rained, the soil in Alta Verapaz was too dry to welcome the immense rainfall that came in early 2019 and Jorge found himself wading chest-deep in his fields in the wake of flooding. Jorge had no choice but to uproot his family and head to make his way to the United States where he hoped to find less volatile economic opportunity. The weather pattern that caused the long-term drought followed by intense rainfall is called El Nino. Climatologists have already begun to note more frequent and more intense El Ninos since the 1970s as a result of climate change.

In addition to the increasing frequency and severity of El Nino cycles, scientists also report that hurricanes blasting the east coast of Central America have also become more frequent and intense as global temperatures have risen. In the fall of 2020, two such hurricanes, Eta and Iota, slammed the shores of Guatemala and Honduras with storm surges that reached Belize and Panama. In parts of Guatemala and Honduras, more rain fell in two weeks than typically falls in four months. The ensuing climate refugee surge to the United States came to be known as the “Caravan of the Damned.”

At the same time, in the “Dry Corridor” running through Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, rainfall has become increasingly sparse. Here, the subsistence agriculture that had been practiced for thousands of years is now all but gone and subsistence-level production of maize and soybeans is impossible. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that 3.5 million people in the region need humanitarian assistance, and hundreds of thousands have already fled to the United States. 

These scenarios give reason to why millions of climate refugees made their way, or will make their way, to the United States as global temperatures rise. It is important to note that some are forced to leave due to the lack of water, and some are forced to leave due to an excess of water. This premise is clearly laid out in Todd Miller’s 2017 book, “Climate Change, Migration, and Homeland Security.”

So what happens when these climate refugees reach the American border, a country that has emitted almost double the amount of greenhouse gasses than other countries since 1975? They are often turned away and told to return to their “shithole” countries, as Donald Trump not-so-endearingly suggested in 2018. In fact, a recent Reuters poll indicated that Republicans are now more united than ever before on limiting the chance for immigration at the United States’ southern border- increasing by 18 percentage points since 2018. Yes, the country that has arguably contributed the most to the climate crisis is also unwilling to bear the consequences of supporting unchecked crony capitalism and emissions.

Perhaps more noteworthy, the very Representatives and Senators who deny climate change are the same congressmen who turn away the climate refugees who come knocking at our door. The mental gymnastics and cognitive dissonance is alarming. Ron Johnson, the same Senator from Wisconsin who claimed that immigrants coming from Central America posed a national security threat and a “national emergency” in 2018 also claimed in 2021 that climate change is “bullsh*t.” Then there’s Lindsey Graham, Ted Cruz and 137 other elected officials in the 117th United States Congress who actively deny climate change while remaining too strict on immigration at our southern border. 

While the solution to this climate crisis is not simply allowing all of Central America to enter our country illegally, our elected officials must stop twiddling their thumbs on the crisis and understand the cognitive dissonance that exists when one denies climate change, then chastises its effects. This is not a radical idea, it is common sense. This common sense is the only way to return to the “moral superpower of the world” status that so many climate change denying officials long for.