This August, more than 30 million people in Pakistan were affected by unprecedented flooding that left one third of the country underwater. Climate minister Sherry Rehman called Pakistan “ground zero” for the climate crisis, joining the growing list of leaders who liken climate change to a war against the Global South.
One of the fundamental inequalities that will shape the coming years is the fact that low-emitting countries like Pakistan are largely not responsible for climate change but are the first to experience its most severe effects. Absent more ambitious mitigation efforts, moving will be the most effective adaptation strategy for millions of people — and, in fact, already is. While most climate-displaced people currently relocate within their country and communities, as the climate crisis accelerates, many will have no choice but to migrate across international borders.
By now, the mass migration of people from Central America to the U.S.-Mexico border is a regular feature of the American news cycle, but beyond a fixation on numbers and dehumanizing “invasion” rhetoric, scant attention is paid to why people are coming.
Often, the reasons are at least partly environmental. For Central Americans navigating issues like gang violence, poverty and economic exploitation, and anti-Indigenous discrimination, crop failure brought on by climate-exacerbated drought and storms can be the last straw. In 2020, two Category Four hurricanes struck the region, causing widespread destruction. Afterward, many Hondurans and Guatemalans felt that the notoriously difficult and dangerous journey to the United States was safer than staying.
Given the scale of the problem, the answer to the question of whether the historic U.S. climate bill is historic enough seems clear. The bill should be celebrated as progress, but as an isolated act it approaches nowhere near the sweeping changes needed to avoid catastrophic climate events that will displace millions.
With that as our baseline, the question becomes: how do we build a movement strong enough to tackle the root causes of the climate crisis and adapt to its inevitable impacts in a way that is equitable and preserves human dignity?
One starting point would be to eliminate the divisions between those who consider themselves environmentalists and those who advocate for migrant rights. Not only are these causes not mutually exclusive, but if we aren’t able to align them, we risk living in a world where environmental concerns are channeled into xenophobic and anti-immigrant policies posing as solutions.
Already, anti-immigrant groups are attempting to promote discriminatory agendas by manipulating environmental safeguards. A recent tactic of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Southern Poverty Law Center-designated hate group, aims to challenge pro-immigrant policies by claiming they first need to undergo environmental review. The radically restrictionist organization has brought multiple lawsuits arguing that immigration policies that increase the population of the United States are harmful to the environment. In a world where populations from the Global South will increasingly be forced to migrate to the United States to escape environmental devastation, this line of thinking is deadly.
What we need instead is a transnational justice movement that not only focuses on reducing emissions, but also advocates for the legal rights of those affected by the climate crisis. We need new legal pathways to get climate-displaced people to safety, and we need the political will to welcome them. The United Nations has indicated that some climate-displaced people “may have valid claims for refugee status,” but no country has yet trained immigration officials to recognize the ways in which climate change worsens marginalization. Caribbean countries have implemented free movement agreements in the wake of hurricanes; six African nations have ratified a similar agreement that recognizes the right of disaster-displaced people to move. Incremental progress is being made, but to build on it, climate and migrant activists from across the world must work together to support and strengthen our respective movements. One piece of legislation may not be enough, but viable solutions to both climate change and climate displacement are available and within reach if we organize to achieve them.
Ama Francis works to expand legal protections for climate-displaced people as the Climate Displacement Project Strategist at the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) in collaboration with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).