Sep 9, 2015 by

CREDIT: Petr David Josek, AP

Refugees wait in Budapest

“The Syria conflict has triggered the largest humanitarian crisis since World War II,” explains the European Commission. As Climate Progress has been reporting for years, and as a major 2015 study confirmed, “human-caused climate change was a major trigger of Syria’s brutal civil war.”

But the unprecedented multi-year drought that preceded the Syrian civil war is mild compared to the multi-decade megadroughts that unrestricted carbon pollution will make commonplace in the U.S. Southwest, Mexico, and Central America, according to many recent studies.

Given the current political debate over immigration policy, it’s worth asking two questions. First: if the United States, through our role as the greatest cumulative carbon polluter in history, plays a central role in rendering large parts of Mexico and Central America virtually uninhabitable, where will the refugees go? And second: will we have some moral obligation to change our immigration policy?

If we don’t take far stronger action on climate change, then here is what a 2015 NASA study projected the normal climate of North America will look like. The darkest areas have soil moisture comparable to that seen during the 1930s Dust Bowl.


Just the last 12 months have seen headlines like these: “Worst drought in 40 years puts more than 2 million people in Central America at risk” and “Drought Reduces Mexico’s Agricultural Production by 40%.” Of course you probably haven’t seen those stories, since most major U.S. media outlets have been too busy covering brutal droughts right here at home.

For a similar reason, there had been little reporting at the time on what one expert called perhaps “the worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilizations began in the Fertile Crescent,” from 2006 to 2010. The 2015 study, “Climate change in the Fertile Crescent and implications of the recent Syrian drought,” found that global warming made that Syrian drought two to three times more likely. “While we’re not saying the drought caused the war,” lead author Dr. Colin Kelley explained. “We are saying that it certainly contributed to other factors — agricultural collapse and mass migration among them — that caused the uprising.”

The study identifies “a pretty convincing climate fingerprint” for the Syrian drought, retired Navy Rear Admiral David Titley told Slate. Titley, also a meteorologist, said, “you can draw a very credible climate connection to this disaster we call ISIS right now.”

The Center for Climate and Security has been writing on the Syria-climate connection for over three years. Co-founder & Director Francesco Femia explained recently:

That drought, in addition to its mismanagement by the Assad regime, contributed to the displacement of two million in Syria. That internal displacement may have contributed to the social unrest that precipitated the civil war. Which generated the refugee flows into Europe.

And no, he’s not saying climate change “caused” the refugee crisis, nor am I. Major refugee crises are generally driven by multiple contributing factors. In this case, one of the factors appears to be climate change. In the coming years and decades, climate change will become a bigger and bigger factor.

During the U.S. Dust-Bowl era, some 3.5 million people fled the region. As I noted in “The Next Dust Bowl,” a 2011 Nature article reviewing the literature, “Human adaptation to prolonged, extreme drought is difficult or impossible. Historically, the primary adaptation to dust-bowlification has been abandonment; the very word ‘desert’ comes from the Latin desertum for ‘an abandoned place’.”


But what scientists tell us we are doing to our climate will be much worse than the Dust Bowl of the 1930 — worse even than medieval U.S. droughts. Indeed, Lisa Graumlich, Dean of the University of Washington’s College of the Environment, notes that the Southwest drought from 1100-1300, “makes the Dust Bowl look like a picnic.”

Remember, the Dust Bowl itself was mostly contained to the 1930s, whereas multiple studies project that future Dust Bowls will be so-called “mega-droughts” that last for many decades — “at least 30 to 35 years,” according to NASA. Further, the 1930s Dust Bowl was regionally localized. As the NASA map above makes clear, we are on track to Dust-Bowlify much of the U.S. breadbasket and Southwest, and virtually all of Mexico and Central America.

Other recent research makes clear we would also turn large parts of the Amazon, Europe, and Africa into near-permanent dustbowls. And this would be “irreversible” on a timescale of centuries.

How bad were the medieval droughts? “Highly evolved societies collapsed and descended into warfare.” These are civilization-destroying, monster droughts. As the news release notes, one of those droughts “has been tied by some researchers to the decline of the Anasazi or Ancient Pueblo Peoples in the Colorado Plateau in the late 13th century.”

And the post-2050 droughts we are foisting on future generations will be much worse — considerably drier and hotter. The dark brown area in the top chart corresponds roughly to the normal climate becoming “severe drought,” which of course means a great many years will be much drier. And the normal temperature will be some 9°F warmer.

Certainly, no country with rational leaders would risk self-destruction like this. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine how even a very wealthy country like America could “adapt” to such permanent Dust Bowls over vast areas of its most inhabited and arable land, at least the way most people think about adaptation today.

It seems likely most would adopt the traditional means humans have used to “adapt” when facing a brutal and very long-term drought — abandonment. Of course, we are a large country and we could in theory spend vast sums relocating our population. Also, we are the breadbasket for the world, which is to say we generate a lot of surplus food today — not to mention the 40 percent or so of food we waste. So we could probably avoid mass starvation in this country post-2050 with stringent enough measures.

But what of our poorer neighbors to the south? They will engulfed by near-permanent Dust Bowl or severe drought. And of course their coastal areas (and ours) will be trying to “adapt” to sea level rise of perhaps several feet by 2100. Again for all but the wealthiest coastal areas, the primary adaptation strategy will probably be abandonment.

Much of the population of Mexico and Central America — likely over 100 million people (Mexico alone is projected to have a population of 150 million in 2050!) — will be trying to find a place to live that isn’t anywhere near as hot and dry, that has enough fresh water and food to go around. They aren’t going to be looking south.

Now, from a purely moral perspective, if you burn down your neighbor’s house and farm, most people would say you have some obligation to house and feed them. So what should happen if one exceedingly wealthy country is the primary contributor to destroying the entire climate of another (relatively poor) country, which itself contributed only a tiny bit to that climate change? The answer seems straightforward — we do everything possible to help them.

But what will happen in the real world where this process occurs gradually over the coming decades for Mexico and Central America — at the same time United States is dealing with the self-inflicted destruction of its own livable climate?

The situation will be a humanitarian and security disaster of almost unimaginable dimensions compared to the current refugee crisis. As Femia and colleague Caitlin Werrell told Climate Progress, “If we worry about the security implications of refugee and migration flows in the future, we need to think about the problem in terms of prevention. Preventive security.”

It’s time to listen to the world’s top scientists and move quickly toward the supercheap path of avoiding climate catastrophe in the first place.

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1 Comment

  1. But the 1930s dust bowl was simply a natural drought exasperated by ill conceived farming techniques and land management. CO2 had nothing to do with it. And CO2 is not going to turn over the soil and leave it exposed to the wind like plows did in the 1930s.

    The western part of North America saw a 240 year long drought that started in the year 850. Fifty years after that drought another 180 year long drought started. Man had nothing to do with it.

    And even after the industrial revolution, the invention of the train, car and plane, using coal, gas or oil, nothing like it has happened since.

    The article mentions Medieval droughts. Something else that man didn’t cause.

    In fact, history is full of natural weather and climate events that are far worse than anything we have seen in the past 50-75 years.
    Yet we are somehow certain that the next time these things happen they are going to be our fault.
    If all the past times were the fault of nature why can’t the next time be caused by nature too?

    People blamed Sandy on man.
    But what about 1954-55? Five east coast hurricanes, four of them major.

    Please explain how a worse event back then was natural but a weaker and smaller event today is man’s fault.

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