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September 4, 2019
Over the weekend Hurricane Dorian slammed into the Bahama islands, causing extensive damage to Grand Bahama and Abaco islands. At least seven people have died. By one early estimate 60 percent of the homes in sections of Abaco suffered extensive damage. 60,000 people could be displaced for some amount of time as a result of this storm - and it has not yet made landfall in the United States.
As we read every day, such storms and other weather related disasters are more common, or at least hit with a greater intensity, than 20 years ago, and one clear reason is the warming waters of our oceans that fuel these storms. Since 2008 an average of 24 million people have been displaced by natural disasters each year. In 2017 the number was 18 million and just over 17 million in 2018. Combined with the number of people displaced by violence and conflict, global displacement reached 68 million people last year.
Natural disasters get our attention, and the immediacy of hundreds of thousands of people displaced by a monster typhoon hitting India or China is shocking. However, climate change impacts migration in far subtler ways. For example, by impacting the spread of diseases that affect agriculture, decimating fish stocks in increasingly acidic ocean waters, shifting rain patterns and temperature fluctuations that impact planting seasons and harvest yields. All of these cumulative impacts of climate change can undermine livelihoods and force people to migrate.
Another example, part of the story of migration from Guatemala right now is related to climate change and economic strains in local coffee markets. From the Washington Post:
Guatemala’s coffee farmers are at the mercy of one of the world’s most volatile commodity markets. Over the past two years, the price has been pushed down by the increase in cheap, mechanized coffee production in Brazil — the Saudi Arabia of coffee — the strength of the U.S. dollar and increased production in Vietnam, Honduras and Colombia. It’s a perfect storm that has eaten away at the value of the beans even as the price of lattes and Americanos in U.S. shops has risen.
Meanwhile, production costs for Guatemala’s 120,000 small-scale coffee farmers have increased as they’ve been forced to buy chemicals to combat the growth of coffee rust, a fungus believed to be associated with climate change.
Guatemala’s dependency on coffee exports is itself that historical legacy of a development model that has failed to serve the interests of the people of the country. This same commitment to unfettered global capital accumulation is also making it nearly impossible to achieve binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions.
We are in a downward spiral. Climate change is undermining livelihoods and creating the scarcity that spark conflicts. Both shifting climate and violence drive people to migrate. As they cross borders, resource scarcity in receiving countries is driving a nationalist backlash, accompanied by a rightwing shift in political coalitions. This only makes the climate crisis worse and creates the potential for further violence.
The ironies abound here - as the U.S. is abandoning its environmental commitments one after the other, while going to war against the people displaced by environmental destruction. In Brazil, Balsonora is letting the Amazon burn, to make land available for unsustainable agricultural use - largely cattle raising - and displacing tens of thousands of people in the process. We are losing time at a pivotal moment in the climate crisis.
Where are we headed? No one really knows. A summary of the potential:
There are no reliable estimates of climate change induced migration. But it is evident that gradual and sudden environmental changes are already resulting in substantial population movements. The number of storms, droughts and floods has increased threefold over the last 30 years with devastating effects on vulnerable communities, particularly in the developing world. In 2008, 20 million persons have been displaced by extreme weather events, compared to 4.6 million internally displaced by conflict and violence over the same period. Gradual changes in the environment tend to have an even greater impact on the movement of people than extreme events. For instance, over the last thirty years, twice as many people have been affected by droughts as by storms (1.6 billion compared with approx 718m).
Future forecasts vary from 25 million to 1 billion environmental migrants by 2050, moving either within their countries or across borders, on a permanent or temporary basis, with 200 million being the most widely cited estimate. This figure equals the current estimate of international migrants worldwide.
The question before us all is if we can adapt our economic and social institutions to mitigate the impact of climate change, while also maturing politically to the point where our leaders can no longer successfully scapegoat migrants as a way to deflect from the systemic underpinnings of the crisis we are facing.
I think our future requires both. And we are running out of time to get this right.