Migrant caravan shows the destabilizing effect of climate change

The estimated 5,000 impoverished Central Americans now pressed against our southern border have triggered a U.S. military deployment, strain on Tijuana’s social services, and heated immigration debate. But unfortunately, almost no one is talking about climate change, a root cause of the migration. Similar to California’s Camp Fire and recent severe hurricanes, we must recognize the caravan as a byproduct of climate change and a small preview of humanitarian crises to come.

Let’s first acknowledge that the people amassed at our border suffer from poverty, violence and injustice. Many are young children just as innocent as our own. It is possible a few criminals are also present. But all reliable accounts indicate the vast majority are families and individuals seeking work in one of the wealthiest nations on Earth. We must reject distracting claims that the caravan is comprised of “stone cold criminals” and terrorists.

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Next, consider that migration from Central America has steadily increased in recent years, driven by pervasive violence and extreme poverty. Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, forming the region’s “Northern Triangle,” have some of the world’s highest murder rates, fueled by gangs, drug cartels, and corruption. It creates terrifying conditions for families and drives migration, both internally and externally to Belize, Costa Rica, Mexico and the United States. Rather than an “invasion” of the U.S., the caravan represents a regional issue that for years has spilled north toward our border.

By now many Americans have heard the tales of unemployment, predatory coyotes, and murdered loved-ones that have spurred people to join the caravan. But the relationship to climate change is chronically underreported.

Similar to the U.S., climate change impacts vary across the Central American landscape. The Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters shows increases in extreme heat, drought and floods in the region in recent decades, and the World Bank predicts continuing outmigration due to diminishing water for irrigation and other factors. In an acute example linked to the migrant caravan, since 2014 persistent extreme drought has decimated crops in the region’s Dry Corridor, leaving at least 2 million people vulnerable to hunger.

It’s important to acknowledge other factors also affecting regional food shortages, including land devaluation from trade agreements, pesticides, and coffee market instability. But the deepening role of climate-related drought is undeniable.

The migrant caravan showcases how climate change becomes enmeshed — and often lost — in complex humanitarian problems. Honduran migrants don’t simply pack up one day and head to the U.S. Instead, as Dry Corridor crops fail, rural residents often migrate first to nearby urban areas in search of work. The increasing population stresses already over-burdened housing, education, and other systems. It worsens violence, drugs, and corruption. Living amidst dwindling hope, families eventually make the perilous decision to flee to the U.S.

This insidious capacity to worsen existing problems has long been a concern of the U.S. Department of Defense, which labels climate change a serious national security threat. It’s been a consistent military assessment since the George W. Bush administration and is echoed by the International Organization for Migration, the World Bank, the Government Accountability Office, and the Department of Homeland Security.

We have already seen how climate change contributes to humanitarian disasters. Evidence suggests it helped ignite the war in Syria, where extreme drought beginning in 2006 withered crops and drove people to cities already swollen with Iraqi refugees and political discontent. The war added to a migration crisis that still strains Europe. It is also evident in today’s calamity in Yemen, where water scarcity is a key issue and Save the Children estimates 85,000 children have died for lack of food. As with the caravan, the root causes of war are complex, but we cannot ignore evidence that climate plays a role.

We should only expect the destabilizing impact of climate change to worsen. The National Climate Assessment, released last week and reviewed by over 300 scientists and 13 federal agencies, unequivocally states climate change impacts are intensifying. The recently released United Nations climate report issued a similarly grave warning that carbon emissions must be slashed in as little as 12 years to avoid serious consequences that include mass human migration.

The reports, along with mounting “unnatural disasters,” show that decades of inaction on climate change has backed humanity into a corner. We are now well past the point of incremental measures and instead must throw our efforts behind big and transformative ideas. Fortunately, smart and compassionate initiatives exist. They include Germany’s Marshall Plan with Africa, global investment in the Green Climate Fund, and other programs associated with the Paris climate accord, where strategic investment in vulnerable parts of the world can foster stability. Here at home we should also welcome growing dialogue around the Green New Deal fronted by New York Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezPoll: Voters split on whether it's acceptable for Israel to deny Omar, Tlaib visas NJ college censures trustee over posts targeting 'the squad' 'The Simpsons' pokes fun at Trump's feud with 'the squad' MORE and others.

Among the hardest truths to accept about climate change is that its destabilizing effects directly threaten our own way of life, including through our own behaviors. The rise of nationalism and intolerance in the U.S. and abroad, illustrated by the Trump administration’s response to the caravan, reflect dark aspects of the human response to immigration. They highlight the need to examine the root causes of the caravan and rejoin global efforts to invest in resiliency and stability in poorer parts of the world.

Tim Lydon has worked on the public lands in the West and Alaska for three decades, in both commercial guiding and federal lands management. His is the author of “Passage to Alaska, Two Months Sea Kayaking the Inside Passage.” Follow him @TimLydonAK.