There’s no shortage of controversy over the policies of the Trump administration. But two areas have, rightly, proven especially inflammatory. More so than any other administration in recent memory, Trump has gone against precedent and expert consensus when it comes to his zero-tolerance stance against immigration, and his administration’s flirtation with climate change denial and inaction. Few of the administration’s moves have drawn as much ire as the recent zero-tolerance, family separation policy at the border. But last year’s decision to leave the Paris climate accord might be one contender. In these areas, Trump has disregarded any established policy consensus from prior administrations, either Republican or Democrat.
Critics of Trump would be hard-pressed to find a reason to think even less of the administration’s moves on these fronts. But many observers are only beginning to grasp the way these two global crises may be intertwined.
In most cases, the most immediately visible reason for migration is political and economic strife in the home countries of migrants. But many analysts are forecasting an increase in climate-driven migration in the coming years and decades. A World Bank report, released in March, predicts that over 140 million people will be forced to migrate as a result of climate change by 2050. Most of that population shift will occur in Latin America, South Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa, as a result of crop failure, water scarcity, and rising sea levels, according to National Geographic.
The report also notes that climate action, including the reduction of carbon emissions and “robust development planning,” could reduce this number by as much as 80 percent, to just 40 million.
“We have a small window now, before the effects of climate change deepen, to prepare the ground for this new reality,” according to a statement from World Bank chief executive Kristalina Georgieva.
Yet, anecdotal evidence suggests this displacement is already part of the picture of global migration. In a recent New York Times opinion article, freelance reporter Lauren Markham writes that in addition to the highly visible political and economic crises driving migration, “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 supports this, estimating that 22.5 million people have already been displaced by climate-related or extreme weather events.
In the US, migration as a result of extreme weather events is already occuring. After Hurricane Maria, 300,000 Puerto Ricans emigrated to Florida, and experts estimate that a total of over one million Americans were displaced rom their homes by climate and weather events last year. These individuals, however, are lucky enough to be able to travel freely within the US, to other areas with less destructive climate and weather.
By all accounts, the problem will worsen in the years to come. A study in the journal Nature Climate Change forecasts that by 2050, 30 percent of the planet’s land surface will experience desertlike conditions, mostly in Asia, Europe, and Africa. A recent study by University of Georgia demographer Mathew Hauer estimates that rising sea levels alone will displace 13 million people by 2100.
It’s worth noting that the US was responsible for 26 percent of global carbon emissions from 1960 to 2005, according to Greenpeace. In that same time frame, they also topped the list of greenhouse gas emissions per capita, at 720 tons. While other parts of the world are starting catch up, the vast majority of historical responsibility for the climate crisis lies with the US.
Through inaction on climate change, even as the bet chance to mitigate the damage passes us by, and by treating migrants as criminals, Trump is refusing to address either the cause, or the outcome of, the global climate crisis. The mindset of those who support these policies is built on the notion that migrants are leaving their inherently less prosperous home countries to horn in on the economic prosperity of the US. But what’s missing from this equation is the way American industrial successes of the past century were built on the use of fossil fuels, the consequences of which are now disproportionately wreaking havoc on the world’s poorer populations. It is this failure to see the world as interconnected, coupled with a denial of science itself, that drives the inward-looking worldview that put Trump in office.