In November 2018, I traveled with a caravan of thousands of Central American migrants as they marched across Mexico towards the US border. While some were seeking refuge in the US from gang violence or political persecution, many others were looking to escape something much more subtle: climate change. The Trump administration decried these climate migrants as “invaders” and attempted to build a wall to keep them out.
But today, as much of the western US burns, and the country looks on in horror as San Francisco suffocates in an orange cloud of ash, we see that the US way of life is also gravely threatened by climate change. More than 8,100 wildfires have burned over 3.9m acres in California this year. The fires have killed 30 people, destroyed more than 7,500 structures, and displaced thousands in the state. Meanwhile in Oregon, half a million people were put under an evacuation order.
The message from the visceral scenes unfolding in the western US is clear: climate displacement isn’t something that happens only outside of our borders. It has already begun in the US, and we can no longer turn our backs on the more than 20 million climate migrants worldwide.
The migrants I traveled with in the caravan primarily came from the Dry Corridor of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador – a tropical dry forest region known for its irregular rainfall, and often considered the most susceptible region in the world to climate change. An unusually prolonged five-year drought dating back to 2014 destroyed hundreds of thousands of hectares of beans and maize, leaving smallholder farmers at risk of starvation. Faced with no other option, many decided to migrate.
Day after day, families walked dozens of miles along unfamiliar Mexican highways, uncertain of their next meals. Five-year-old children solemnly trudged along in the pre-dawn darkness, pulling toy cars behind them. Young mothers carried newborn daughters over tired shoulders, while weary men gazed restlessly ahead towards the unknown. Just like the Dust Bowl refugees of the 1930s, these climate migrants hoped that the failed harvests of yesterday would soon be replaced with the American dream of tomorrow.
But the American dream of tomorrow is also under great stress. The climate displacement of the Dust Bowl era is already here – and has been here for many, many years.
In Louisiana, the coast has been losing at least a football field’s worth of land every 100 minutes, which has prompted thousands of coastal Louisianans to migrate from the state. The Urban Institute estimated that in 2018 more than 1.2 million Americans left their homes for climate-related reasons. One 2018 study, published in the Journal of the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists, predicts that one in 12 Americans in the southern half of the country will relocate over the next 45 years due to slow-onset climate influences alone. While mega-disasters like the wildfires in the western US capture our attention, slow-onset disasters such as sea-level rise or annual flooding are even more likely to cause permanent displacement.
With such an imminent threat looming over the country – and the world – the time for action is now.
The international community took a step in the right direction in December 2018 when it recognized climate migrants for the first time, including those from the US. Leaders from 164 countries formally adopted the UN Global Compact for Migration, which acknowledged climate change as a driver of migration and urged countries to begin preparing for a surge in climate migration. But clearly more needs to be done, starting with seriously trying to mitigate climate change. Instead, the Trump administration continues to dispute its existence, has pulled the US out of the Paris agreement, and has rescinded regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Rather than granting protections to climate migrants abroad and at home and recognizing a collective global challenge, the administration has ignored the issue (much like its response to the coronavirus pandemic) and ramped up its inhumane policies at the border.
When the Dust Bowl ravaged the United States in the 1930s, a mass exodus of 2.5 million midwestern farmers migrated towards California. These climate migrants, just like the ones today, were derided as “aliens” and “undesirables”. The state of Colorado even deployed its militia for 10 days to stop the migrants from entering. Ultimately, this act was deemed unconstitutional, as it was declared that “the citizens of each state shall be entitled to all privileges and immunities of citizens in the several states”.
The US response to climate displacement today must recognize a similar collective responsibility towards all those affected by climate change. Many of today’s climate migrants are, after all, American.
Alex Domash is a master’s degree student in international development at Harvard Kennedy School