A Warming World Creates Desperate People

CreditMaggie Chiang

By Lauren Markham

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

  • June 29, 2018

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.

 

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