Climate migration doesn’t have to be a crisis

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“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

The Biden administration on Wednesday released a report that predicts climate change will force “tens of millions” of people around the world to be displaced in the next few decades. The report echoes the findings of a number of previous studies that suggest worsening climate impacts — sudden disasters like fires and storms, plus more gradual problems like rising seas and drought — could displace as many as 200 million people before 2050.

Climate change affects the whole world, but the citizens of certain low-income countries everywhere from Central America to sub-Saharan Africa are especially vulnerable to climate-related displacement. Beyond the harm of millions of people being forced from their homes, climate migration could threaten the stability of resource-strained countries and increase the risk of conflict between nations, according to a separate national security assessment released this week.

While estimates paint a particularly dire picture of the future, some of the effects of climate displacement are already being felt around the world. The United Nations estimates that an average of 21.5 million people worldwide are displaced by sudden disasters every year. Droughts and storms in Central America are believed to be one of many reasons for an influx of migrants heading to the U.S.-Mexico border in recent years. The Syrian civil war, which has created a devastating humanitarian crisis and displaced more than 13 million people over the past 10 years, has been partially attributed to a drought that forced rural farmers to flood into urban areas.

Why there’s debate

As worrying as some forecasts of the future are, a range of experts say that with the right preparation and investment, climate migration can be managed to limit suffering and prevent countries from falling into chaos.

A key step, most experts argue, is for rich countries like the U.S. to do everything within their power to prevent people from being forced to migrate in the first place. That starts with limiting greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming. Doing so would reduce the potential severity of storms, droughts and other factors that drive people from their homes. Rich countries also need to offer aid to poorer countries to adapt to climate change — for example, helping low-income countries build infrastructure to handle higher sea levels and stronger storm surges and dealing with major population shifts within their borders, since most climate migrants relocate to new areas of their home countries.

Many also argue the U.S. will need to update its immigration system to prepare for the unique challenges of managing climate migration. Some immigrant rights activists say climate displacement should be added to the list of reasons a person can qualify for refugee status. That’s controversial on both the left and the right. There’s broad agreement among experts, though, that a more permissive immigration system — with less focus on aggressive border enforcement and more pathways to enter the country legally — could not only prevent unnecessary suffering, but also create benefits for the U.S. economy.

What’s next

Climate migration is expected to be one of many important issues discussed by world leaders at the upcoming U.N. Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland. Representatives from nearly 200 countries will meet over the course of two weeks in hopes of reaching an agreement on an emissions reduction strategy to avert the worst potential impacts of climate change.


Strict immigration enforcement isn’t the answer

“States that have grown addicted and accustomed to solving problems with walls and weapons are acting to news of climate-linked mobility by trying to repel people, hoping to insulate themselves. ... Not only will this cause ever more human suffering, it will fail on its own terms.” — Todd Miller, Independent

Fear-inducing rhetoric about the threat of climate migration must end

“When most people think of ‘climate’ and ‘immigration,’ they think at the global scale — which can be scary. The idea that a changing, increasingly inhospitable climate will drive mass migration is frightening. ... But migration is, and has always been, a form of adaptation — and it can be a major benefit to receiving communities.” — Claire Elise Thompson, Grist

Immigration laws need to be updated to recognize climate displacement

“A lack of lawful migration opportunities forces many of those moving for climate-related reasons to do so without authorisation and at risk of exploitation and abuse. But solutions are within our grasp.” — Tamara Wood and Edwin Abuya, Thomson Reuters Foundation

With the right planning, climate migrants can help the U.S. thrive

“Migration can bring great opportunity not just to migrants but also to the places they go. As the United States and other parts of the global North face a demographic decline, for instance, an injection of new people into an aging work force could be to everyone’s benefit.” — Abrahm Lustgarten, New York Times

The U.S. must provide extensive support for vulnerable countries

“The best deterrent to migration is hope. We must provide the leadership that allows the people

in our own hemisphere the chance to survive and prosper at home.” — Cecilia Muñoz, The Hill

Climate shouldn’t be treated as the only reason people leave their homes

“In general, illegal border crossings can be traced to any number of factors: job opportunities, drug trafficking, political shifts, and, yes, climate change. There’s nothing wrong with bringing attention to these issues by examining them in print. But to solve a problem, you have to properly define it first. We can and should address the border crisis and climate change at the same time. But conflating the two only makes that task more difficult.” — Sean-Michael Pigeon, National Review

Limiting climate change will reduce the need for climate migration in the first place

“The most useful thing that the developed countries of the West can do to help endangered societies elsewhere is to rapidly limit our own carbon emissions — for if we fail to do so and temperatures rise uncontrollably, then weak states around the world will assuredly fail.” — Anatol Lieven, Foreign Policy

We should start helping people relocate before their situation becomes desperate

“Real change — like relocating entire neighborhoods and communities out of harm’s way — would be far better handled not in times of crisis, when the displaced must weigh complex decisions in the midst of chaos and loss, but before a crisis hits.” — Alexandra Tempus, New York Times

Climate migrants can be an enormous asset if given the right opportunities

“The easier we make it for the young to move to places where they can contribute productively, such as by building more sustainable housing and irrigation systems, the better our odds during the turbulent decades ahead.” — Parag Khanna, National Geographic

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

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