Forced Migration is the New Face of Climate Change

As climate change has influenced forced migration around the globe, the Central American refugees could be a strong indicator of what climate migrations will look like in the very near future.

In the wake of the United Nations IPCC report, many have been left with these feelings of fear, dismay, and rage at the prospect of having just 10 years to drastically reduce our global emissions and narrowly avoid the worst case scenario of climate change.

A Migratory shepherd family during their journey near Ausa, Latur district Maharashtra. Climate change is impacting the lives of millions of people around the world, forcing communities to break apart while creating a global refugee crisis.

Having nowhere to call “home” can be one of the scariest moments in a person’s life. Whether that’s at the hands of chronic unemployment or a climate change induced disaster, your life changes forever. When disaster strikes, it is in that moment of terrible reality you’re faced with the throat wrenching question: what do I do?

The looming threat of unchecked pollution and the continued inaction of corporations to show leadership in helping to stave off the destructive impacts of climate change stir up these emotions across demographics, identities, and political party lines. These feelings pale in comparison to the grave realities of how climate change is impacting the lives of those most vulnerable — and the Central American refugees are among those most vulnerable.

The refugees that have been traveling from Central America in pursuit of safety and freedom from violence have been a source of public debate since their story first surfaced in the public sphere on October 12th. What began as approximately 160 people fleeing San Pedro Sula, Honduras, grew into a movement of people seeking safety in the U.S. and Mexico. Their reasoning for seeking asylum ranges from political instability and unemployment to repression and impending violence — but one thread that connects many of these narratives that has not received much attention is a decreasing viability of land due to climate change induced droughts.

Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, the countries that make up the majority of asylum seekers, are at the heart of the “Dry Corridor” where communities have experienced ongoing droughts that have devastated their agricultural production and roused the need to migrate. These drought-prone areas have only gotten worse as a result of the changing climate. Guatemala, in particular, being listed as one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change.

Saying No to Shell

The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, and oil and gas companies have cynically tried to take advantage of the region’s melting ice to search for new places to drill. In 2015, Royal Dutch Shell made a play to drill for oil in the Chukchi Sea, north of Alaska. Not only would this have been a disaster for the climate, but an oil spill in the Arctic would be impossible to clean up. Not to mention that Shell’s history of screw-ups and mistakes didn’t exactly inspire confidence. Greenpeace and the climate movement rose up to say #ShellNo. People piled into kayaks and canoes to confront Shell’s drilling rig, the Polar Pioneer, in Seattle.

Obama Protects the Arctic Ocean

Building on this momentum, thousands of people called on President Obama to use his legal authority to make the U.S. Arctic Ocean off limits from future oil drilling. In late 2016, Obama took action to permanently protect all of the Chukchi Sea and the vast majority of the Beaufort Sea — as well as a number of biologically important undersea canyons in the Atlantic.This was a big victory for the people-powered climate movement, signalling that the relentless expansion of the oil industry into new areas was finally at an end.But then Trump happened.

The Trump Twist

Trump came into office calling climate change a hoax and giving handouts to dirty energy companies. His plan to open up nearly every U.S. coastline to more oil and gas drilling was extremely unpopular, and in the case of the Arctic Ocean, it outright ignored the fact that Obama had already ruled out future leasing there.

Trump’s new offshore oil plan called for lease sales in the Beaufort Sea starting in 2019 and the Chukchi Sea in 2020. In response, Greenpeace joined with other groups in a lawsuit to challenge the plan in court. Earthjustice and the Natural Resources Defense Council led the litigation, representing Greenpeace along with Alaska Wilderness League, Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, League of Conservation Voters, Northern Alaska Environmental Center, Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands (REDOIL), Sierra Club, and the Wilderness Society.

The key issue was that when Congress enacted the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA), it gave the president authority to withdraw areas from oil and gas leasing, but made no mention of revoking previous withdrawals.

That’s an act that only Congress itself can take. Judge Sharon Gleason agreed with this analysis, and as she stated in her ruling, Obama’s withdrawals “will remain in full force and effect unless and until revoked by Congress.” The government may appeal this ruling, but for now this is a big victory for the climate.