Drought in Somalia has left some 739,000 people displaced. Climate change will only make this worse.
Photo: AP

A number of U.S. departments that work overseas have been dealing with a serious problem since Donald Trump took office: lack of direction on climate change and how it impacts migration.

Now, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) is recommending that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo get his shit together and offer these federal departments some guidance. Because whether or not the Trump administration wants to accept it, climate change is likely to change migration patterns. Hell, it probably already is. 

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The GAO released a report Thursday outlining the ways the Department of State (DOS), the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and the Department of Defense have seen efforts to identify how climate change is causing people to move hindered as a result of funding cuts, new and erased executive orders, and a general lack of guidance.

The DOS and USAID used to require that country and regional strategies include climate change risk assessments, per the GAO report. In 2017, however, the State Department stopped directing missions to do such assessments and offered no guidance on how they could if they wanted to. This guidance is key to ensuring that the U.S. government doesn’t miss the ways climate change is messing with people’s lives—like, say, a drought pushing rural farmers to find livelihoods elsewhere. That’s why the GAO is now suggesting the State Department get back to it.

By 2050, we may see anywhere from 25 million to 1 billion environmental migrants or climate refugees, according to the International Organization on Migration. They may be moving within their country or across borders.

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Climate change can drive migration in a variety of ways. There’s sea level rise, of course. Small island nations like the Maldives will literally become uninhabitable as oceans wash away their homes. With rising seas come eroding coastlines, and people in Alaska are already seeing their infrastructure tumble into the ocean as their coasts deteriorate.

A warmer world could also mean an increase in frequency or strength in natural disasters like wildfires, droughts, and hurricanes. Paradise, California, which burned to the ground in November leaving thousands of people homeless, is one example of what the consequences can look like. Parts of Central America are dealing with serious drought right now, and some experts believe this might already be contributing to the so-called migrant caravan Trump obsessed over for weeks.

If that scared him, he should wait and see what happens when climate change really starts ruining people’s lives. The administration wants to pretend climate change isn’t real, so it’s failing to prepare for it and any disruptions that can result from a serious event that pushes people toward our borders. Trump’s already killed former President Barack Obama’s executive order that required federal agencies work together to develop data on climate change, as well as a presidential memorandum that required federal agencies to examine threats relevant to their work and to national security.

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Unfortunately, the new GAO report has pushed the State Department to want to kill one of Obama’s remaining executive orders on climate, as Grist reports. The DOS already told the GAO that it’ll agree to its recommendation to offer U.S. diplomats guidance on climate change information-gathering, but the department also noted that it will consider asking Trump to kill Obama’s remaining 2014 order on Climate-Resilient International Development.

“This is unprecedented within my experience that the agency would on the one hand essentially acknowledge and agree to the recommendation, but on the other hand begin working to consider whether to rescind the underlying executive action,” said David Gootnick, director of international affairs and trade at the GAO who co-wrote the report, to Grist.

Mass migration is one of the president’s favorite scare-tactics. What a surprise he chooses to ignore the ways climate change can fuel it.

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