Child Immigration & Extreme Weather: Have We Missed the Connection?

You’ve watched – perhaps with horror, or perhaps with approval – at American protesters blocking buses filled with Central American children from reaching immigration processing centers around the country.

In Murrieta, California two weeks ago, 150 of them chanted “USA! USA!” and waved American flags. The scared children on board – some as young as six years old – didn’t understand the words: “Go home! We don’t want you here!” But in the end, the buses turned around and took them elsewhere.

If you’ve been reading the news, then no doubt you’ve heard the debate: Who’s to blame for letting those children in? What laws do we need to change to keep them from coming? How quickly can we schedule court hearings to decide their fate? What signals did we send that brought them here in the first place? Which political party would handle this mess better?

Protesters at immigration processing centers

Protesters at immigration processing centers

Less often, however, do we hear about conditions that drove their desperate flight. Think about it: What would ever have possessed your mother to pay someone to cram you onto a freight train and send you on a perilous journey among total strangers – possibly forever?

Since last October, there have been 52,000 of them: children walking across the U.S. border, all the way from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Clearly, something is going on here. That many parents don’t just float their vulnerable children among the bulrushes for no good reason. Now and then, we hear about conditions back home: gang violence, child murders, rape, poverty. Are these just evil countries?

Well, perhaps you haven’t heard about one condition back home. As far as I know, it hasn’t found its way into the public debate at all. Here it is: Honduras and Guatemala are among the top ten countries in the entire world most seriously hurt by global climate change. Honduras, in fact ranks #1 worldwide on this scale. And El Salvador just misses the top ten, with a #13 ranking.

Now please, wait! Don’t tune me out just yet! I’m not claiming that we’ve got 52,000 juvenile climate refugees pouring across our borders. But I am saying this: Climate change is widely recognized as interacting with existing stressors around the world to drive instability and to undermine order and security. Even the U.S. Armed Forces have determined that the effects of global warming “are threat multipliers that will aggravate stressors abroad, such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability and social tensions….”

And if they’re right, then we can’t think meaningfully about future immigration without considering what we’re doing to climate systems. These children are streaming in from countries steeped in poverty, disorder and violence. And all three of these countries lead the world in bearing the impacts of climate change.

Can we please talk about that?

First of all, what about this ranking of climate-impacted countries? We’ve discussed it before at Beloved Planet. It’s called the Climate Risk Index (CRI), and we’re now in the ninth annual version. The CRI addresses the question: Who suffers most from extreme weather events? It acknowledges that no single extreme weather event can be solely attributed to manmade climate change; but also that climate change is an increasingly important factor in determining the intensity and frequency of such events. The CRI ranks the countries of the world according to the level of harm suffered in the prior two decades from extreme weather events. (However, the CRI ignores entirely other climate-related harm, like drought, crop failure, ocean acidification and sea-level rise.)

In the latest ranking, Honduras has been hurt the worst of any country in the world. In fact, extreme weather has sucked 2.6% out of Honduras’ annual GDP growth during these decades. That’s difficult to fathom, when we consider that 3% overall GDP growth is considered to be a pretty good year in the U.S.

Picture1How could today’s worsening weather extremes do this much harm to any country? Well, consider Hurricane Mitch. In the record-hot year of 1998, Mitch dumped as much as 75 inches of rainfall on Honduras. The result was catastrophic flooding. The president of Honduras said that it set the country’s economic development back 50 years. In the end, one out of every five Hondurans was left homeless, and the $3.8 billion in storm-related damages thrust the country into a severe recession.

For American readers, the impact of Mitch in Honduras could best be understood by imagining that we were hit here at home by an event that left 60 million of us without housing, and cost us $5.2 TRILLION (an amount exceeding one-third of our famous national debt). That would be a pretty bad storm for us, wouldn’t it?

Hurricane Mitch left 20% of Hondurans homeless

Hurricane Mitch left 20% of Hondurans homeless

Now we might think that maybe Honduras just stumbled onto some rotten luck, with one really bad storm during these years. In fact, however, Honduras suffered 65 extreme weather events during these two decades. So it won’t surprise us to learn that Honduras’ GDP per capita – the most basic measure of personal income – is mired at the lowly level of $2,291 per year, about 96% lower than in the U.S.

Now let’s say this again: There are many factors that are contributing to Central American poverty and lawlessness. But surely we can recognize the role of manmade climate change in exacerbating these problems, can’t we?

If we can, then let’s consider what the future might hold for these families casting their children adrift onto our borders. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has warned of even more intense weather ahead.

“Extreme precipitation events … over wet tropical regions will very likely become more intense and more frequent by the end of this century,” they concluded in their 2014 report. “Monsoon precipitation is likely to intensify due to the increase in atmospheric moisture.” [Summary for Policymakers, p. 23]

And for Central America specifically, the IPCC found “ample evidence of increases in extreme climate events ….” During the first decade of this century, they recorded 630 weather and climate extreme events leading to 16,000 deaths, and 46.6 million people affected. Hurricane activity more than doubled during the 2000-2009 period, compared with prior decades. [Ch. 27, Impacts Report, Latin America, p. 8]

And so, if there is any value in the science and record-keeping gathered by the IPCC, then a prudent person would expect more desperate immigration attempts in the future, not less. Our task cannot be to simply quash rumors spread by human traffickers, appoint more immigration judges, or to build higher fences. For Central America, the problems of poverty and lawlessness are likely to persist – or deteriorate – as extreme weather events conspire to undo years of development efforts.

And if they do, ever-greater numbers of children and families will surely continue to take desperate measures to find haven in our country. At some point, we need to ask ourselves about the requirements of justice, don’t we? The average Honduran generates about 1.2 tons of CO2 emissions per year. In our country, we’re each responsible for over 17 tons on average. But if our carbon binge is coming home to roost in Central America, then isn’t it time to ask whether we owe something to those desperate children fleeing the consequences?

“He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.” Deuteronomy 10:18-19



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