A Warming World Creates Desperate People

Jun 30, 2018 by

By Lauren Markham

Ms. Markham is a freelance reporter who writes about migration and the environment.

Credit Maggie Chiang

Last year I traveled to southern Guatemala, the source of one of the largest migrations of unauthorized immigrants to the United States in recent years. It’s clear why people are leaving: Guatemala is a country rife with political conflict, endemic racism against indigenous people, poverty and, increasingly, gang violence.

But there’s another, lesser-known dimension to this migration. Drought and rising temperatures in Guatemala are making it harder for people to make a living or even survive, thus compounding the already tenuous political situation for the 16.6 million people who live there.

In the town of Jumaytepeque, which is in Central America’s dry corridor, a group of farmers took me to see their coffee crops. Coffee was responsible for the majority of the community’s income but had been decimated by a plague known as coffee rust, or la roya. Plagues like these aren’t necessarily caused by climate change, but it exacerbates them, and roya is now infecting plants at higher elevations as those heights become warmer. Making matters worse, stress from the drought has made these plants more vulnerable to the plague.

“We can’t make a living purely off coffee anymore,” one young farmer told me in the dappled shade of his coffee plantation, pointing to the limp, yellow roya-pocked leaves all around us. Young people like him, he explained, either move to the cities and try to make a go of it amid the gang violence, “or they go north,” he said, to the United States.

Long before the unconscionable family-separation catastrophe at our southern border, President Trump had made the battle against illegal immigrants the rallying cry of his campaign and administration. He wants to lock up more immigrants — including toddlers — as a deterrent while casting all new unauthorized immigrants as potential, if not probable, violent criminals. Simultaneously, the president’s team has taken on the environment, doing nearly everything it can to walk back decades of regulation intended to protect our air, water and land. Last June, Mr. Trump pulled out of the Paris climate accord. Meanwhile, Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, is doggedly eviscerating the agency he runs.

Today, according to global relief agencies, over 68 million people worldwide have been forced to flee their homes, often because of war, poverty and political persecution. As a writer, I focus largely on issues of forced migration. The hundreds of migrants I’ve interviewed in the past few years — whether from Gambia, Pakistan, El Salvador, Guatemala, Yemen or Eritrea — are most often leaving because of some acute political problem at home. But I’ve also noticed something else in my years of reporting. If you talk to these migrants long enough, you’ll hear about another, more subtle but still profound dimension to the problems they are leaving behind: environmental degradation or climate change.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that since 2008, 22.5 million people have been displaced by climate-related or extreme weather events. This includes tragedies like the widespread famine in Darfur, monsoons and flooding in Bangladesh and the catastrophic hurricane in Puerto Rico. The more out of whack our climate becomes, the more people up and leave their homes. As our world heats up and sea levels rise, the problem of forced migration around the world is projected to become far worse.

And in refusing to take climate change or responsibility for our planet seriously, the Trump administration is encouraging the conditions that will increase unauthorized migrations to the United States and elsewhere.

Outside a youth refugee facility in Sicily, a group of teenagers from Gambia who had crossed the Mediterranean from Libya told me that farming had become too difficult to sustain in their country as the semiarid Sahel region spreads ever wider across the continent, drying up people’s land. In Yemen, years of water scarcity helped lead to the country’s brutal conflict.

El Salvador, one of the world’s most murderous countries, is just now recovering from a devastating drought, which only heightens the stakes and scope of the violence. In my book about youth migration from El Salvador, “The Far Away Brothers,” I write about a family that ended up on the wrong side of a gang-protected man in town. The family’s teenage twin brothers left because there was a price on their heads, but the challenges persisted for those who remained behind. The family’s fields produced less and less. The tomatoes took on a pallid, sickly color; other crops failed to grow at all. The family couldn’t survive from farming anymore, so more of the children considered going north. They haven’t yet, but nearly every day, one of the daughters tell me, she considers making arrangements to leave.

Many things are exacerbating the effects of the drought in Central America, including pervasive deforestation and farmers overtaxing their land. But according to Climatelinks, a project of the United States Agency for International Development, the average temperature in El Salvador has risen 2.34 degrees Fahrenheit since the 1950s, and droughts have become longer and more intense. The sea has risen by three inches since the 1950s, and is projected to rise seven more by 2050. Between 2000 and 2009, 39 hurricanes hit El Salvador, compared with 15 in the 1980s. This, too, is predicted to get worse.

When reporting a story among migrants living in the shadows of a Kenyan slum, I asked a group of men why they left their homes in rural Ethiopia. They were farmers there, like many generations before them, but they told me they could no longer make a living off their crops or even adequately feed their families. The rains had changed — it wasn’t just that they had lessened but that they had become more erratic; no rain when the crops needed it to grow, and then, when it was time for harvest, it would rain suddenly and terribly, ruining the crops. The men had left for Kenya to find work and send money back to feed their families.

Like El Salvador, Gambia, Bangladesh and Guatemala, Ethiopia has been hit hard by climate change, though it is not even in the top 100 emitters of greenhouse gases. But the problem with climate change, of course, is that it is a problem that crosses borders.

The anti-immigrant rhetoric of the Trump administration has made for elaborate and bombastic theater — but with real, and sometimes deadly, human consequences (see again the children separated from their parents at the border). But Mr. Trump means what he says: He wants immigration from poor countries to stop. He sees the problems in those countries as theirs, not ours — never mind the centuries of catastrophic foreign intervention in places like El Salvador and the rest of the Americas, the Arab world and sub-Saharan Africa, or the growing menace of the changing climate.

If President Trump really wants to curb “illegal” migration to the United States for the long haul, he’d better get serious about climate change. The Trump administration can continue to eviscerate the E.P.A. and thumb its nose at global efforts to protect the climate. Or he can work responsibly to try to curb international migration by addressing the challenges of a warming planet.

He can’t have it both ways.

Lauren Markham is a freelance writer and the author of “The Far Away Brothers: Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American Life.”

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