Climate change is a game changer: glaciers melt, sea levels rise, weather patterns become unpredictable. Then add the anticipated secondary effects, such as crop failure, the salinization of freshwater, and the flooding of coastal cities. With all of this disruption, massive movements of people across the globe in coming years are sure to happen, as the people affected look for new homes. “More and more people will be displaced because of climate change,” says María Cristina García, History. “The question is this: Can we come up with some kind of legal mechanism in the United States and internationally that addresses what promises to be a significant problem?”
García is exploring that question in her latest book project, Climate Refugees: The Environmental Origins of Refugee Migrations, which looks at environmentally driven migrants. “People have been displaced by climate for millennia,” García says, “but we are now at a particular historical moment, facing a new type of environmentally driven migration that will be more fast and furious. It will require incredible adaptability and political will to keep up with the changes that are forecasted to happen.”
Climate Refugees: Responsibilities of the International Community
García is especially concerned about climate refugees because they do not fall under the current definition of refugee. “The term refugee is defined very precisely in international law,” she explains. “In U.S. law, for example, refugees are defined as individuals persecuted because of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular group, or political opinion. Nowhere does climate figure into it. It leaves this entire group of people without international protection or recognition. I’ve seen projections that put the number of people who will be displaced by climate change as high as 200 million by mid-century, so the international community will have to come up with creative solutions to address the problems generated by internally displaced populations and mass migrations.”
Already there are places on earth that are hard hit by disruptions caused by climate change. The pacific islands of the Maldives and Kiribati, for instance, are relocating residents. In the United States, the melting of permafrost in Alaska is threatening groups of indigenous peoples. “Entire communities will have to be relocated at great financial expense and disruption to their livelihoods,” García says.
In her book, García is looking at case studies of people in the Americas who have been displaced because of environmental factors, especially populations from Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, Mexico, and the Caribbean island of Montserrat. All of these countries have been hit hard by natural disasters in the last decades, forcing large portions of the population to migrate. “I’m looking at the commonalities of their experiences,” Garcia says. “Are there certain lessons that can be learned from what happened to them?” These nations will continue to experience environmental disruptions caused by climate change. Experts predict the Caribbean Islands and Mexico will be especially vulnerable.
“Migration because of environmental factors means increased competition for goods and services, housing, and jobs,” says García. “It increases the possibilities for political conflict and sectarian violence. The international community must take steps to foster adaptability programs to help people become more resilient, so they can change livelihoods and stay in their own countries, if possible.” As an example of creative answers to climate problems, García points to Vietnam where the government is experimenting with different forms of water, crop, and soil management as an answer to the salinization of the Mekong Delta.
Who, Among Refugees, Can Enter the United States?
García came to study climate refugees because she noticed the prevalence of environmental factors causing migration while researching her previous book, The Refugee Challenge in Post Cold War America (Oxford Press, 2017). The book looks at refugee policies in the United States since the end of the Cold War.
“In U.S. law…refugees are defined as individuals persecuted because of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular group, or political opinion. Nowhere does climate figure into it.”
“In the Cold War period, the overwhelming majority of refugees came from the Soviet Union, Vietnam, Cuba, and other communist states,” she says. “In the post–Cold War era, political dissidents, pro-democracy advocates, and victims of torture have continued to receive protection as was the case during the Cold War; but so, too, have victims of trafficking and criminal violence, as well as those victimized by forced conscription, coercive population control measures, and restrictive gender and sexuality-based rules. Many who have been admitted as refugees or who have received asylum in the post–Cold War era would never have been considered just a few decades earlier. But their advocates mobilized political support for them.”
After September 11 America’s heightened concerns about national security created a new War on Terror. “That becomes the new ideological lens through which we interpret who is worthy of protection,” García explains. “It becomes more difficult for refugees to enter the United States, especially if they come from countries with large Islamic populations.”
Many of the people who came to the United States during the post–Cold War period were fleeing war or political conflict. Often, however, they were initially displaced because of some environmental factor. García says, “A hurricane, earthquake, or drought threatened their livelihoods and their lives, and they were forced to move, which put pressure on their new location. So, the natural disaster became a threat multiplier. Once people moved, they exacerbated political tensions in their new location and caused further displacement.”
The Cuban Refugee Program
García herself is a refugee. Born in Cuba, she and her family came to the United States in the 1960s. “We arrived during the Cold War,” she says, “and the proverbial red carpet was laid out for us. Cubans were the beneficiaries of the government’s Cuban Refugee Program, which helped doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers, and all kinds of professionals retool for the American economy. Not surprisingly, Cuban-Americans have been economically successful. When you have the U.S. government recognizing and validating your experience, and investing in your future, that helps you succeed.”
García says her own experience makes her naturally sympathetic to refugees. “So many immigrants have been left out of the national American narrative. I want to bring them into that narrative because they, too, are part of the American experience.”