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Climate change is upending Central America — the US must take action

Climate change is upending Central America — the US must take action
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Climate change, migration and displacement issues have taken center stage for the Biden-Harris administration. On Jan. 27, President Biden signed an executive order that established climate change as a foreign policy and national security priority. On Feb. 4, he signed an executive order that requests a report on climate change and its impact on migration. 

While this constitutes the first time a president of the United States has signaled a willingness to work on climate and migration issues, it does not come in a vacuum. For our regional neighbors in Central America, the threat of climate displacement is becoming more urgent by the day. Swift action from the Biden administration will ensure that the region remains stable and secure in the face of increasing and frequent climate impacts.

Last year was the most active Atlantic hurricane season in recorded history, with two large-scale hurricanes, Eta and Iota, hitting Central American coasts within two weeks of each other in November. Torrential downpours caused dangerous flash floods and landslides, destroying infrastructure and disrupting livelihoods from Panama to Southeastern Mexico. Climate science makes it clear that these events are the new normal. 

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Northern Central America has suffered from the effects of climate change for some time. The ‘dry corridor,’ which extends from Southern Mexico to Costa Rica, is prone to extreme weather patterns that have eroded the livelihoods of people in this area, particularly those that rely on rain-fed agriculture. For example, the Food and Agricultural Organization estimates that 3.5 million people have faced food insecurity in the past 10 years due to recurring droughts. Now these areas must also build back from both the COVID-19 pandemic and severe hurricane damage. For many, the result may be precarious livelihoods and protracted displacement.

As people continue to leave their homes in the face of these climate-related disasters, the need grows to provide protection for those affected. 

That’s where the United States can play a role. Biden already has a $4 billion dollar plan to address root causes of migration in Central America, but there are additional actions that his administration should take to address climate-related displacement from the region.

First, the United States should move quickly to offer Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, a designation that allows individuals of countries affected by conflict or environmental disaster already residing in the United States to live and work in the country for a limited period of time, to affected countries that do not already have it. In some cases, governments have already proactively requested it, as is the case for Guatemala.

Second, given impending climate change impacts, a Biden-Harris administration must reassess the “temporary” nature of TPS. In some cases, slow-onset disasters — such as sea-level rise, glacial melt and desertification — will be dramatic and irreversible, calling into question the ability of TPS holders to return safely to their countries of origin. The Biden-Harris administration should request that the Department of State develop a mechanism and guidelines around assessing country risk to slow-onset disasters — with guidance from international institutions such as the UN Refugee Agency, or UNHCR, the International Organization of Migration and other experts — in order to assess the viability of return for TPS holders.

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Once the assessment is made that certain TPS-designated countries are highly at risk to face slow-onset impacts, the administration may wish to explore possible pathways to permanent residence and citizenship for those populations. TPS holders should be afforded this opportunity only after their status has been extended for five years (the time period that UNHCR has associated with a protracted refugee situation). 

Third, the United States should also support Central American nations in creating a policy and legal framework that acknowledges internally displaced people and follows the UN’s Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement in affected countries. By providing a legal framework for internally displaced people, Central American governments can begin to understand the number of internally displaced and the challenges that affect them to create tailored policies. Climate-related displacement drives the need for this to become reality and Refugees International will continue to advocate for such support. 

Fourth, the United States can continue supporting humanitarian and development efforts by building back better to include more funding for climate change adaptation and resilience initiatives. This support can be channeled through Biden’s plan for Central America, which includes calls for combatting the effects of climate change in the region. Investment in these initiatives now will ensure that those who would like to stay in the face of climate-related disaster will have more of an opportunity to do so. 

The reality for Central America is that devastating storms like Eta and Iota will continue to become more frequent in the future. The region’s climate is irrevocably changing — and the international community, especially the United States, must change with it by creating a bold and thoughtful response to issues of climate change and displacement. 

If done correctly, thousands of people will be more resilient in the face of climate-related disasters and can seek out the support and protection they need. 

Kayly Ober is the senior advocate and program manager for the Climate Displacement Program at Refugees International. She is author of the recent report, “At a Climate Change Crossroads: How a Biden-Harris Administration Can Support and Protect Communities Displaced by Climate Change.” Rachel Schmidtke is the advocate for Latin America at Refugees International. She is author of the recent report, “Critical Policy Advice for President-Elect Biden: Protecting the Forcibly Displaced in Central America.”