Climate Conference of Madrid, Spain
This year (especially being an election year), the headlines are constantly filled with news of Syrian refugees fleeing across the mediterranean, and of course, debate about Presidential candidate Donald Trump’s plan to build a massive wall across the entirety of the US-Mexico border, with the goal of keeping undocumented immigrants out.
The Syrian refugee crisis and the crisis on our own border that has been present for years both show the inability of European countries, the United States, Mexico, and much of the world to deal swiftly and effectively with humanitarian crises of these magnitudes.
I first became interested in border politics and migrant rights through my classes and experiences as a Hispanic studies minor. Last fall, I spent a semester in Oaxaca, Mexico studying the push-pull factors of migration from Central America, through Mexico, and to our southern border, focused on the migrant’s experience while traveling through Mexico.
Some of my favorite photos from my semester in Oaxaca, Mexico.
While not necessarily main factors on the US-Mexico border now, drought, lower crop yields, and increased frequency of natural disasters (all generally accepted consequences of climate change) could cause large numbers of people to migrate away from severely affected areas.
What will we do when climate change forces more people to migrate within their home countries and across borders? In this blogpost, I wanted to look at the US-Mexico border in a distant future where climate change is likely to produce large numbers of “climate refugees”.
Right now, immigration from Mexico is the lowest it has been in about a decade. The majority of undocumented immigrants coming across the border are actually from Central America. However, a 2010 study found that increasing numbers of Mexicans would migrate north due to predicted effects of climate change.
The study found that even a 10% reduction in crop yield (mainly corn) would cause an extra 2% of Mexicans to migrate north. A previous study found that each one degree celsius of global temperature increase would decrease corn yields by 5-15%. This means that between 1.4 and 6.7 million Mexicans could be migrating to the United States by 2080.
One significant obstacle that the US (and other countries worldwide) will have to deal with is that the term “refugee” only applies to “those fleeing persecution on the basis of five clearly specified criteria - race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a social group. It does not apply to those forced to leave their countries because of disasters, environmental degradation, or the effects of climate change.” Although used frequently, the term “climate change refugee” has no meaning in international law. The Platform on Disaster Displacement has been working to combat this issue, advocate for displaced persons around the world, and foster international cooperation in humanitarian protection of people displaced by natural disasters.
However, if the US is to effectively handle an influx of Mexican climate change refugees, one important thing needs to happen: we need a greater number of Americans to truly understand that global warming is caused by humans. A 2008 Gallup poll found that while 97% of Americans had knowledge of climate change, only 49% believed that global warming is caused by humans.
How can we be expected to empathetically deal with this probable humanitarian crisis if we are unable to come to terms with why it exists in the first place?
In stark contrast to the US, 71% of Mexicans believe that global warming is caused by humans. Why the large difference? The answer is complicated, but one aspect I would like to focus on is privilege.
Americans understand less about climate change and global warming because they are privileged enough to be able to do so. 1.4 million Americans will not be moving to Mexico because of the effects of climate change. I am not saying that climate change isn’t currently affecting Americans. It is, and will surely continue to do so in the future. Americans that are displaced by disasters or rising sea levels will most likely migrate to different parts of the US. Mexico and other countries south of the border will be more susceptible to droughts and severe water shortages than most of the US.
The US-Mexico border is the longest in the world between a wealthy and poor country. One of my favorite authors, Gloria Anzaldúa, wrote that “The US-Mexico border es una herida abierta (is an open wound) where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds.” The effects of climate change will only exacerbate the inequality between our two countries.
During this election season, many comments have been made along the lines of, “If Trump wins, I’ll just move to Canada.” Because we are privileged, we take it for granted that a foreign country would simply accept us on such a whim. Others are not so lucky.