The militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border is one of the defining aspects of the Trump administration. So is climate denial.
The two have intersected uncomfortably in the past week. On Friday, the administration attempted to bury a major climate report that including a troubling look at how climate change could cause more human suffering and migration. Then on Sunday, Border Patrol forces fired tear gas at migrants seeking asylum and locked down the border crossing between San Diego and Tijuana, making the report’s findings very real by offering a preview of what the future may hold.
The National Climate Assessment is focused on the present and future impacts of climate change on the U.S. But owing to U.S. hegemony and globalization, those impacts hardly stop at the border. In the chapter on how U.S. international interests could be hit by climate change, the report points national security concerns, including human migration.
“Extreme weather events can in some cases result in population displacement,” the report notes. “For example, in 1999 the United States granted Temporary Protected Status to 57,000 Honduran and 2,550 Nicaraguan nationals in response to Hurricane Mitch...Slower changes, including sea level rise and reduced agricultural productivity related to changes in temperature and precipitation patterns, could also affect migration patterns.”
Those slower changes aren’t some far off thing anymore. They’re happening now. Research has indicated climate change worsened the drought that contributed to Syria’s destabilization and might have contributed to its attendant asylum seeker crisis in Europe. And climate factors are almost certainly a contributor the influx of migrants from Latin American countries currently headed toward the U.S.
“Why people migrate from Latin America is a complex mix of social, economic, political and environmental drivers,” Francesco Femia, founder of the Center for Climate and Security, told Earther. “Climate change aggravates those existing problems, acting as a threat multiplier.”
Violence in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador—three of the countries where most recent asylum seekers are coming from—is the immediate cause for people to up and leave. But as with Syria, a widespread drought that devastated farmers in Central America’s Dry Corridor has helped destabilize the region. Coffee rust—a fungus that can kill coffee plants and thrives in warmer temperatures—has affected 70 percent of Central America’s coffee farms and caused 1.7 million workers to lose their jobs.
The signs of how climate shifts are already influencing migration, coupled with a report by federal scientists warning the risks of migration and instability will only grow in a warming world would, in a rational world, lead a government to consider how to mitigate these risks. But rather than listening to the red alerts, the Trump administration has doubled down on policies that will drive carbon pollution higher. The president himself has flatly said he doesn’t believe the report.
Beyond making climate change worse, the administration is abjectly failing on adaptation as well, particularly in the form of international aid. In announcing his intent to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, Trump highlighted not wanting to pay into the Green Climate Fund that helps developing countries adapt to climate change as well as reduce emissions. That’s a shortsighted approach to aid that will exacerbate inequality and hurt American interests long-term.
“From a security perspective, it’s much more effective to make investments in climate resilience, help our neighbors in Latin America stabilize their societies, and when migration is the only option, find humane ways of absorbing it,” Femia said. “In the meantime, we will need to prepare for increased migration by creating more flexible immigration policies that can absorb movement. Walls don’t work. And even when they do, they can exacerbate instability on the other side, and lead to greater security problems.”
Instead, the president has repeatedly called for funding for a border wall and fixated on turning the border into what looks like a set piece out of Children of Men. By ignoring the bigger problem, Trump could push the U.S. into a trap outlined in one of its key messages of the National Climate Assessment: a hotter, less stable future will undermine U.S. investments aboard and lead to calls for even more humanitarian aid.