Jay Inslee
Photo: AP

In a future where storms are more powerful and entire communities are destroyed, people are going to need somewhere to go. They’re gonna need new homes—and a leader willing to let them in.

Washington State governor and White House hopeful Jay Inslee might be that leader. This week, Inslee became the first U.S. presidential candidate to include immigration policy in a formal climate plan. Released Wednesday, the Global Climate Mobilization Plan details his international policy approach to climate change, including how climate change is exacerbating the world’s refugee crisis and will continue to do so. The plan outlines some of Inslee’s ideas for how to tackle this growing crisis, as well as strategies around international trade and the global economy.

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It’s right in line with Inslee’s $9 trillion climate plan to transform the U.S. economy to one revolved around clean energy and equity. He wants to make sure the U.S. isn’t the only one that makes it out of this mess in one piece. And less developed countries are even more vulnerable.

In 2017, 18 million people became displaced due to weather, from floods to storms, according to the Global Report on Internal Displacement. In the U.S., we’re expected to see an influx in people fleeing from their Central American homes in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador as drought and climate change force farmers to abandon their fields to seek something more promising up north.

Inslee wants us to face that reality head-on. In his 50-page plan, the Washington governor lays out specific strategies for how to help climate refugees including increasing annual refugee admissions to 110,000, withdrawing U.S. military personnel from the border, reinstating temporary protected status to immigrants from Haiti and El Salvador, launching a refugee resettlement program, and more. His plan places a specific emphasis on countries in the Northern Triangle—Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador—by providing $450 million in funding to help them tackle poverty, education, and agriculture.

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“Climate change isn’t just one issue. It touches every issue,” Jared Leopold, the senior communications adviser for Inslee’s team, told Earther in an email. “The global community needs to come together to address the humanitarian impact of climate change, and that includes the increase in migration driven by climate change. The fact is: Immigration is a climate issue, and we need to make it part of our climate policy.”

Of course, immigration is complicated and climate change is but one factor that can drive it. But Alex de Sherbinin an associate director with Columbia University’s Earth Institute, says climate change will trigger more of it. “And particularly it may trigger more distressed migration from countries where other factors are already propelling people to leave—Central America being one of those regions,” de Sherbinin told Earther.

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Given the fact that folks in the industrialized West have historically contributed the most to global greenhouse gas emissions, de Sherbinin sees it as fitting that countries like the U.S. take responsibility for those who are left displaced in wake of natural disasters or extreme weather. He supports a union of immigration and climate policy, but the reality is that policymakers need to tread carefully in how they implement such policy and decide who gets to be so-called climate refugees, a term de Sherbinin doesn’t use. Otherwise, in a future where no one can escape climate change’s wrath, we might all qualify as climate refugees in some way.

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Inslee’s plan doesn’t offer a clear definition of what would constitute a climate refugee, but his plan is clear he wants to help prevent people from becoming them by partnering with non-governmental organizations and international bodies to develop sustainable livelihoods in the countries already dealing with impacts from climate change. He wants other countries to publish their own National Climate Assessments so that they know where to begin, per his new plan. And he aims to cultivate wealth and economic opportunity in other countries to help families stay home, where many ultimately want to be.

While the new plan mentions national security, it isn’t a plan meant to protect the United States per se, but vulnerable communities around the world. Whether you support Inslee or not, you gotta give the man credit for that. It’s easy to sell something on the premise that it’s good for the U.S.; it’s harder to sell it on the premise that it’s good for, well, outsiders.

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“To have U.S. politicians recognize linkages between climate change and immigration is a necessary step forward, as effective policy solutions can’t be developed absent an accurate understanding of the reasons why people migrate,” said Michelle Mittelstadt, the communications director for the Migration Policy Institute, in an email to Earther.

That being said, she finds it unlikely that this recognition will actually result in policy reform anytime soon. The conversation around climate change and immigration has become incredibly polarized, she said. If Inslee actually won, perhaps her attitude would change. But it’s way too soon to speculate on that as the polls show less than 1 percent of voters have their eyes set on him. And other Democratic candidates like Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden have released their own climate plans, too.

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Now, how about that climate debate to hear what they all got to say?