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Gongloff: It is much cheaper to help migrants before they leave their homeland

Gongloff: It is much cheaper to help migrants before they leave their homeland
Gongloff: It is much cheaper to help migrants before they leave their homeland

Gardi Sugdub is a tiny island off Panama’s Caribbean coast, crammed from end to end with homes for about 1,300 members of the indigenous Guna people. The island is sinking into rising waters as the planet warms, so Panama has built a housing community inland for the entire population. They will move into their pristine new homes this month.

If only climate migration were that simple.

President Joe Biden signed an executive order making it harder for people to seek asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border, the latest move in a political war over immigration that has divided the country for decades. But as with many of the impacts of climate change, we may one day look back on the era that brought us routine panics about migrant caravans in election years and Donald Trump’s big, beautiful wall as “the good old days.”

As temperatures rise around the globe, so will heatwaves, droughts, floods, pandemics and other natural disasters, as well as food and water shortages and conflicts over resources. According to the nightmare logic of climate change, the countries least responsible for emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and warming the planet will bear the brunt of these impacts. And these countries also tend to have the least wealth, infrastructure and social fabric to protect their populations.

In fact, the countries with the most refugees, asylum seekers and other uprooted people are already the most affected by climate change, even though global warming is only 1.3 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial average.

They are concentrated mainly in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and South America along an equatorial belt that has experienced more extreme heat caused by climate change in recent decades than the rest of the planet.

Most migrants probably wouldn’t say they’re fleeing climate change. They’re fleeing war, economic uncertainty, social instability, and the like. Yet climate change is multiplying these threats. It’s probably no coincidence that 95% of conflict refugees in 2020 came from global warming hotspots, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

Because so many different factors influence the reasons people migrate, it can be difficult to identify climate as one of the reasons. But there is some evidence. A recent review of scientific literature by researchers at the University of Vermont and the University of Otago in New Zealand found that high temperatures and weather-related disasters consistently trigger migration around the globe. And a 2021 study by researchers at the National Autonomous University of Mexico found that migration of low-income farmers from Mexico to the U.S. not only tripled during droughts, but may have accounted for a third of all cross-border migration.

Given all these complexities and the lack of data, modeling possible future climate migration is even more difficult. Various algorithms have estimated figures ranging from 50 million to 1.2 billion worldwide. By 2050, 216 million people could be displaced within national borders, the World Bank estimates. And internal migration – from rural to urban areas, for example – is usually the first step in cross-border migration. According to a 2010 Princeton study, up to 6.7 million people could flee from Latin America to the United States alone by 2080 due to climate change.

But there is little point in trying to estimate such distant figures precisely. It is enough to know that they are likely to be very high – especially given the extreme backlash that even the relatively low levels of cross-border migration in recent decades have already triggered.

In the U.S., we constantly talk about the “crisis at the border,” but as my colleague Justin Fox at Bloomberg Opinion has noted, illegal crossings at the southern border are almost certainly no worse today than they were in, say, the 1980s and 1990s. The number of encounters between migrants and border agents is higher than ever, but those agents have gotten much, much better at catching illegal immigrants in recent years. The result is a real problem, but not necessarily a generational one yet.

It is easy to imagine how politicians in this country would react if the number of collisions doubled or tripled. But simply building higher walls and more barbed wire cannot be the only solution. First, it is immoral. The United States and other developed countries are responsible for most of the greenhouse gases that have warmed the atmosphere and plunged millions into misery. They bear a significant responsibility to clean up the mess they have created.

Waiting to tackle the migration problem until it shows up at the border is also dangerously impractical. Keeping hundreds of millions of people in intolerable conditions will only create impossible pressures that will lead to even more chaos and conflict. It will be much cheaper to support these people before they leave their homes, especially by helping their countries mitigate and adapt to climate change. Achieving this politically is difficult now, but it will not get any easier in the future.

Of course, there are easily achievable targets here, worth $70 billion a year: that’s the annual cost of servicing developing countries’ debt, which could be forgiven or swapped for nature to ease the burden on vulnerable countries. Developed countries should also continue to deliver on their long-delayed promise to spend $100 billion a year on climate aid – without resorting to tricks like providing most of the “aid” in the form of more debt or requiring that the proceeds be returned to donor countries.

Climate refugees also deserve full protection under international law and recognition that fleeing to warmer climes is not a crime, but a survival and adaptation tool that humanity has used since time immemorial. As the number of climate safe areas continues to dwindle, it is helpful to remember that we ourselves could one day be the climate refugees.

Mark Gongloff is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.

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