We can't tackle the migrant crisis without fighting climate change

We can't tackle the migrant crisis without fighting climate change

Many Americans have rightfully been outraged at the inhumane conditions of migrant families detained at the border. Refugees have been packed tight into cages that don’t leave them room to lie down, denied basic amenities like showers and toothbrushes, and separated from their children.

Meanwhile, there was a record heatwave that gripped most of the United States. At face value, these issues may seem entirely unrelated. The reality is the crisis at the border is deeply connected to the climate crisis.

What the world’s scientists warned us about 30 years ago is emerging before our eyes. In Central America, prolonged and escalating droughts have choked the water supply and turned crops to dust. Famine, thirst, poverty and crime is creating a generation of climate refugees who uproot from their homes and loved ones. These refugees come to the United States, seeking refuge, stability and dignity.

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Instead, they face guns, dogs and jails at our border. Make no mistake, this is what American climate policy looks like in the age of President TrumpDonald John TrumpSupreme Court comes to Trump's aid on immigration Trump is failing on trade policy Trump holds call with Netanyahu to discuss possible US-Israel defense treaty MORE.

At the first debate among Democratic presidential hopefuls, not one candidate discussed how climate change is fueling the crisis at the Mexico border. That’s outrageous.

It’s simple. If crops don’t grow anymore in agricultural-based economies, people leave. Extreme temperature fluctuations, new pests and unpredictable rainfall are decimating crops across the American continent, leaving farming families with no income and often empty stomachs. Food insecurity, for example, is the main reason why migration from Guatemala has spiked in recent years. 

We will not fundamentally address immigration in this country until we recognize how a warming climate is destabilizing entire nations, especially agrarian countries like Guatemala. Half of the Guatemalan workforce is in the agricultural sector. You read that right — half. For a sense of scale, farmers and ranchers make up just 2 percent of the population in America. 

For agrarian families that depend on growing the food they eat, it only takes a few months of volatile climate patterns to drive people to starvation. Droughts recently have been crippling even the most well-established commercial farms, which often provide can back-up work for independent farmers. After years of drought and erratic climate changes, entire villages are collapsing with no food, no jobs — and no hope for the future. 

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Climate change is not just hurting crops, it’s killing people. Farmers in El Salvador are dying of chronic kidney disease caused by dehydration after working in record temperatures. These are the same fields they worked comfortably just decades ago. With this in mind, how can you not feel the despair and urgency of this crisis?

Of course, people are fleeing their homes. They are starving, burning and dying in places they no longer recognize.

And this is just the beginning. A conservative estimate by the World Bank says by mid-century, climate-forced migration will reach 100 times the number that has fled from Syria in recent years. That’s just 30 years away. 

Presidential candidates have yet to fully communicate, and potentially fully grasp, the connection between the migration crisis and a warming planet. Even the candidates who are vocal supporters of a Green New Deal failed to connect the dots. 

The Green New Deal is not a solo policy, it is a governing mindset to transform the underlying values running our economy so that instead of caging children who come here fleeing disaster and economic hardships, we can wage war on the climate emergency, poverty and injustice at home and abroad. The Green New Deal is about saying that no person should be disposable so a few CEOs can make a buck.  

When America is at our best, we are welcoming, compassionate and fair. That is the America we should build. As warming triggers more climate-fueled migration, we will be challenged again and again to rise above the racially charged behavior of our current administration and lend a hand to the down-trodden stranger at our borders. The decisions we make today will shape our choices in the future as climate change disrupts more and more communities around the globe.

Instead of addressing the underlying cause of migration, the Trump administration is cutting aid, locking up children and allowing families to drown at the border. That is wrong and cruel.  

Both our immigration policy and our climate policy in this country are out of step with our values as Americans. The next president has a moral duty to right these wrongs. This will require pulling out all the stops to fight climate change and rebuild the values that have made America a place where people fleeing crises can seek sanctuary and opportunity, not greet more terror and violence.

Any candidate’s plan to address climate change must embody the same values when we address migration, treating every single person with the inherent dignity and respect they deserve. 

We have a choice as Americans in this moment: to allow a politics of hate and division to fester, or to pursue a politics of compassion, neighborliness and the preservation of dignity for all. 

It’s an easy choice for me. The fight to avert climate change must be a global one, rooted in empathy for the future all of us depend on.

Varshini Prakash is the executive director and a co-founder of Sunrise, a movement of young people stop climate change and create millions of good jobs in the process. The movement is best known for a November 2018 sit-in at Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiWords matter, except to Democrats, when it involves impeaching Trump Nadler: Impeachment inquiry a 'made-up term' but it's essentially 'what we are doing' Young insurgents aren't rushing to Kennedy's side in Markey fight MORE’s office, which helped put the Green New Deal in the national spotlight. Prakash recently was Sen. Ed MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeyYoung insurgents aren't rushing to Kennedy's side in Markey fight Ocasio-Cortez endorses Markey in Senate race amid speculation over Kennedy candidacy House votes to block drilling in Arctic refuge MORE’s (D-Mass.) guest to the State of the 2019 Union address and was named one of Grist’s 2018 50 “Fixers.”