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Climate Refugees: Global Warming Will Spur Migration

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Debate over comprehensive immigration reform may have stalled last week in the Senate, but there’s one key concern that’s just warming up: the exacerbating effect that droughts, severe weather, food shortages, disease, and sea level rises will have on migration.

Worldwide environmental, economic, and social consequences from existing atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations, even if we were to cease emissions today, will drive migration around the globe. Attention to the migration pressures resulting from global warming should therefore be an essential aspect of a long-term U.S. immigration plan. This will not only focus efforts on helping populations adapt to climate change, but also encourage thought on how to alleviate migration pressures.

According to the International Federation of Red Cross, climate change disasters are already a bigger cause of population displacement than war and persecution. Estimates of climate refugees currently range from 25 to 50 million. And this April, global scientific experts and former U.S. military leaders warned in two reports—the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fourth Assessment and the CNA Corporation’s “National Security and the Threat of Climate Change”—that the effects of global warming are likely to trigger conflict and mass migrations of affected people.

Large numbers of immigrants to the United States currently come from Mexico and the Caribbean, and with increases in storm intensity, stress on natural resources, and rising sea levels—side effects already affecting these regions—immigration levels will only increase. Northern Mexico’s severe water shortages will drive immigration into the United States despite the increasingly treacherous border terrain. The damage caused by storms and rising sea levels in the coastal areas of the Caribbean Islands—where 60 percent of the population live—will likewise increase the flow of immigrants from the region and generate political tension.

The United States cannot ignore the potentially heightened flow of displaced peoples as it continues to discuss immigration reform. Because we shoulder a large portion of the responsibility for the current levels of global warming pollution in the atmosphere, we have a moral responsibility to invest in solutions that will help ourselves and the world—particularly poor countries—adapt and prevent the growing implications of climate change.

The countries least responsible for greenhouse gas emissions are frequently the most vulnerable to global warming’s earliest effects. Developing countries bear minimal responsibility for climate change because they have little industry and produce relatively small amounts of pollution. But their populations—often the poorest of the world’s people—are more likely to occupy vulnerable locations such as coast lines, flood plains, and steep slopes and live in structures unable to withstand severe weather events. The governments of these poor countries therefore carry the largest burden associated with climate change and are ill-equipped to recover from disasters and meet the basic needs of their citizens.

The United States therefore owes a “climate debt” that it needs to pay back to these poor countries. China may have recently surpassed the United States in terms of overall greenhouse gas emissions, but the United States has still had the largest historical greenhouse gas emissions as well as the greatest per capita emissions. Each American citizen on average produces four times the amount of greenhouse gas as an average Chinese citizen. And, unfortunately, because greenhouse gases can persist in the atmosphere for hundreds of years, the world will be experiencing the negative effects of these disproportionately large U.S. emissions for years to come.

To tackle this debt, we should direct a portion of the revenue generated by an eventual national greenhouse gas cap-and-trade or carbon tax law toward adaptation projects such as desalinization facilities to provide fresh drinking water, city construction away from low-lying areas inundated by rising sea levels, and investment in drought-resistant crop cultivation. This adaptation assistance will help diffuse potential conflicts over scarce resources and offset global migration pressures.

Alleviating this debt by investing in projects to help these countries adapt to climate change will fulfill a moral obligation and is smart international policy. As Congress steps back to decide its next steps for tackling the immigration crisis, it must begin considering how it will deal with even larger numbers of immigrants and take action before the problem worsens.

To speak with our experts on this topic, please contact:

Print: Katie Peters (economy, education, poverty, Half in Ten Education Fund)
202.741.6285 or kpeters@americanprogress.org

Print: Anne Shoup (foreign policy and national security, energy, LGBT issues, health care, gun-violence prevention)
202.481.7146 or ashoup@americanprogress.org

Print: Crystal Patterson (immigration)
202.478.6350 or cpatterson@americanprogress.org

Print: Madeline Meth (women's issues, Legal Progress, higher education)
202.741.6277 or mmeth@americanprogress.org

Spanish-language and ethnic media: Tanya Arditi
202.741.6258 or tarditi@americanprogress.org

TV: Lindsay Hamilton
202.483.2675 or lhamilton@americanprogress.org

Radio: Chelsea Kiene
202.478.5328 or ckiene@americanprogress.org